Saturday, September 08, 2007

A Jazz Drummer Who Says Cuba, Sí; Salsa, No


Francisco Mela performing with his quintet at the Blue Note.
Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times


The New York Times

By BEN RATLIFF
Published: September 8, 2007

Since Cuban musicians, and drummers in particular, have played such a strong and complicated role in jazz’s history, the Cuban drummer Francisco Mela’s new quintet seems almost unfairly significant from the start.

Truthfully, it’s still undercooked. It would need a few months of touring to sound more fluid than it did on Wednesday night at the Blue Note, and who knows whether that’s possible? (He’s also the drummer in Joe Lovano’s quartet, and the foreseeable future looks busy.)

Mr. Mela is in his late 30s but new to American audiences. He came here in 1997 to study at Berklee and released his first album, “Melao,” only last year. His new band is very current, very New York, and it doesn’t sound like Latin jazz. “I am from Cuba, yes,” Mr. Mela explained to the audience before the band played a note. “But this is not salsa.”

These songs had new ideas about form. It was never just theme-solos-theme, and not all five musicians contributed to each tune. Various players left the stage for stretches and then reappeared when needed.

Recurring melodies made each tune cohere, but they felt episodic. A short strict-time section would give way to a short rubato section, and solos were often short passageways to the next written section, instead of events in themselves.

The constant elements were Mr. Mela and the bassist Larry Grenadier; the variables were the pianist Jason Moran, the guitarist Lionel Loueke, and the tenor saxophonist Mark Turner. And Mr. Mela let them take turns in placing their stamp on the music. The grooves and vamps were always strong, but he didn’t bind his musicians in a particular sound; he let them be who they are.

Each of them got a chance to play entire songs as part of a trio, accompanied only by bass and drums. Mr. Moran made his solos dense with his own harmony and phrasing, creating groundswells of tension that Mr. Mela quickly responded to.

The same went for Mr. Turner, playing dry and keening phrases in the high registers, and Mr. Loueke, strumming percussively and running his acoustic guitar through a wah-wah pedal. For brief passages, with all of them, it seemed that we could have been listening to their own bands.

Mr. Mela sang too. In the middle of the set he played “Pequeña Serenata Diurna,” a well-known Cuban folk song from the early ’70s by Silvio Rodriguez, whose Spanish lyrics begin “I live in a free country” and ends with “I am a happy man/and I want the dead to pardon me for my day of happiness.”

The song was arranged frugally for a trio, with Mr. Loueke and Mr. Grenadier, and when Mr. Mela sang each verse, in a rough voice, he made the wise decision not to play the drums at all. He let a folk song be a folk song.

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