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Simply Winging It

By David Bentley

July 12, 2003
Copyright © 2003 Courier-Mail, Queensland Newspapers Pty Ltd. All rights reserved. 

LATIN jazz saxophonist David Sanchez uses a phrase from his native Puerto Rico to describe his collaboration with Cuban pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba. "We are," he says, "like the wings of a single bird."

It's a poetic but apt way to express their fiery fusion of modern jazz with African and Caribbean rhythms, a musical alchemy reinvigorating jazz around the world.

Of the two players, Rubalcaba is better known with seven albums spanning two decades. Sanchez, for his part, is a virtuoso who recently placed among Downbeat magazine's top 10 tenor sax men.

Both musicians are band leaders in their own right, making it a rare treat to experience them in tandem at the QPAC Concert Hall in Brisbane on July 26 as part of the Queensland Biennial Festival of Music.

By phone from Moscow, 34-year-old Sanchez recalls the serpentine journey that progressed from a boyhood fascination with the conga drum to serious jazz saxophone studies and finally to the pinnacle of jazz.

The catalyst was winning a music scholarship to New York, where he connected with New York-based Latin legends like Eddie Palmieri and Chucho Valdez and also met emerging stars like pianist Danilo Perez and trumpeter Charlie Sepulveda.

Gigs with Palmieri led to a two-year stint with late trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie's United Nations Orchestra. When ill health forced Gillespie's retirement in 1992, Sanchez found himself in demand as a sideman to the stars.

Gillespie, then in his 70s and a Latin jazz pioneer, opened doors with a testimonial describing Sanchez as the owner of a "very old mind, (who) knows his changes, knows where he's going and where he's coming from".

In the New York jazz scene this amounted to sanctification, and Sanchez, then in his 20s, spent the next few years honing his style with influential jazz musicians like Slide Hampton, Kenny Barron, McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones.

Sanchez could, if he chose, drop jazz names like confetti. During this interview, however, he seems more interested in forwarding a lesser-known Latin master, Mario Bauza.

"Whenever you talk about the fusion of Latin music and jazz, you have to mention Mario Bauza," he insists. "Mario and Dizzy basically started everything. They took influences from everywhere: Brazil, Africa, Cuba, the Middle East.

"They were open to many genres and they knew how to bridge those genres with the thing that makes jazz unique - the very special way of communicating through musicians interacting upon each other."

AS IT happens, Bauza receives a guernsey in the CV of Ignacio Berroa, the Cuban-born drummer who, with bassist Armando Gola, will accompany Rubalcaba and Sanchez quartet at their Brisbane performance.

Bauza, it turns out, was pivotal to the fusion of Latin music and jazz because he introduced Berroa to Dizzy Gillespie. Berroa influenced Dizzy and vice versa. It's much more complicated than that, but you get the idea.

Talking with Sanchez, you realise how powerfully New York's tight-knit community of Afro-Latin musicians has impacted on the jazz scene. Indeed, Latin fire may be just what jazz needs to shake it free from post-Coltrane complacency.

Few Latin musicians have been more influential than Gonzalo Rubalcaba, the Cuban pianist who came to notice when drummer Jack de Johnette and bassist Charlie Haden chose him to fill the piano bench usually occupied by Keith Jarrett.

Now 37, Rubalcaba hails from a line of Cuban musicians. His father, who helped introduce the cha cha, still leads Charanga Rubalcaba. His grandfather composed El Cadete, a widely known Cuban processional.

Like Sanchez, Rubalcaba began as a percussionist. On keyboards he expresses flowing lyricism and technical pyrotechnics in equal measure, tossing off dazzling flourishes that transform the piano into a soaring melodic drum.

He defies easy categorisation, probably because he draws inspiration from a grab bag of Afro-Cuban styles that most people, unless they happen to have been raised in Cuba or studied Cuban music, know very little about.

Ask if he is a jazz musician influenced by Cuban folklore or vice versa and he says: "It's hard to separate what you've been brought up with from what you've acquired ... but black music is where I come from."

He says his playing has become "more loose-handed". He no longer fears to cross music borders.

Something is happening here and, the way David Sanchez sees it, everything traces back to Africa. Puerto Rican music differs from Cuban music, he says, only in that the original slave populations belonged to different tribes.

Even Rubalcaba's percussive piano playing has an African precedent in the kalimba, the so-called thumb piano, which lends a melodic dimension to purely rhythmic patterns.

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