Buena Vista Social Club meets modern jazz at Club Helsinki

Jane Bunnett with bandmate/husband Larry Cramer

by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., November 11, 2001) – Years before anyone had heard of the Buena Vista Social Club, Jane Bunnett and Larry Cramer were making frequent trips to Cuba from their home in Toronto. The musicians were repeatedly drawn back by the music they heard in the hotels, bars and streets of cities like Santiago and Havana. Their journeys to Cuba soon became musicological expeditions that would eventually result in critically-acclaimed recordings, many of them collaborations with musicians they met in Cuba, and triumphant concerts, such as the one they gave on Saturday night to a sold-out crowd at Club Helsinki.

Cuban music is still enjoying renewed popularity on these shores in the wake of the documentary The Buena Vista Social Club and the related CDs. But those who came to Helsinki expecting to find traditioanl, Buena Vista-style sons, boleros and comparsas might have been surprised or even disappointed. While there were certainly portions of songs that were recognizable as the sort of Cuban dance and folk music made popular by the Buena Vista juggernaut, Bunnett doesn’t merely recapitulate the traditional, folkloric arrangements of Cuba; rather, she creatively builds upon them as raw material for jazz improvisation.

In lesser hands, this might just be an excuse for aimless noodling over the infectious rhythms and colors of Afro-Cuban music. But Bunnett and her bandmates are top-notch improvisers. Bunnett brings to the bandstand years of study and collaboration with modern jazz giants including Steve Lacy, Don Pullen and Dewey Redman – open-minded composers and improvisers themselves – and it showed in her spectacular technique and her smart solos.

Bunnett made clear from the outset that this was more jazz concert than ethnic novelty night when she opened the show with “Son Santiaguero,” introduced with a five-minute, lyrical soprano saxophone solo, whose minor-key modes and lachrymose mood suggested Eastern Europe as much as the Caribbean (shades of Steve Lacy?). Eventually, however, the band kicked in, and the intricate, interlocking rhythms of drummer Diego Lopez and percussionist Padrido Martinez built up a powerful head of steam on this last night of the group’s five-month tour.

“Joyful Noise” lived up to its title, a pleasant melody featuring group vocals answered by Bunnett on flute and husband Cramer on trumpet. The former in particular made a strong case for flute as a jazz instrument, exploring its textural possibilities with grace notes and breathy, split notes far beyond what one typically expects to hear from the instrument.

“Forever Strong and Happy” was a dance piece with more of a recognizable son, party feel, with the flute dancing over the clave laid down by the rhythm section. The pianist claimed this number for himself with a dazzling solo that found the Latin in ragtime and inserted a brief snippet of “Jeepers, Creepers.” Martinez’s conga solo demonstrated why the young hand percussionist recently won the Thelonious Monk Jazz Competition in his category.

“Alma de Santiago,” the title track of the group’s wonderful new recording on Blue Note Records, began with a lush piano introduction before morphing into a bit of Cuban noir. Bunnett took a particularly soulful soprano sax solo on the bolero-esque ballad portion of the original tune, playing sensual pairs of alternating notes before sailing up and down the octaves, stringing out multiple notes in long, single breaths. She also used a two-steps forward, one-step back strategy, climbing a ladder of melody before erupting at the top with piercing honks and squeaks of delight on a piece that ended in an explosion of dynamic street music, featuring all group percussion and Bunnett playing a Chinese cornet.

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on November 13, 2001. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2001. All rights reserved.]

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