Cuban music has become rather omnipresent these days, and it’s tempting to write off any norteamericano who travels down there and starts messing around. But this is not the first trip to Cuba for Jane Bunnett. In fact, she has spent the last decade playing with the jazz musicians of that small and fertile island, which officially disqualifies her from any criticisms of jumping on the Buena Vista bandwagon.
Bunnett, a Canadian saxophonist and flautist of great skill and heart, has been finding her confidence in these last few albums, and hence her collaborations have gotten more and more interesting, too—1997’s Havana Flute Summit was kind of interesting as a concept but really fun in its execution; 1998’s Chamalongo was her most integrated work, mixing jazz players with a group called the “Cuban Folkloric All-Stars”; and last year’s Ritmo + Soul was a 71-minute blowout that incorporated mystical Cuban singers into the mix, giving them freer rein than did her 1991 album Jane Bunnett and the Spirits of Havana.
This album, as you might have guessed from the title, is another departure for “Habana Juana”. Here, she and husband/producer/flugelhornist Larry Cramer tap into the native sounds of Santiago de Cuba, the second-largest city on the island. Once again, they use the talents of arranger Hilario Duran and bass player extraordinaire Roberto Occhipinti; but this time, they’re mixing it up with some of Santiago’s wilder talents.
There are three main teams working with Bunnett and Cramer here: the Santiago Jazz Saxophone Quartet, the son group Los Jubilados, the 17-year-old piano prodigy David Virelles, and the 38-member La Conga de los Hoyos de Santiago de Cuba. These groups are heard to great effect here, both with Bunnett as their leader, and in funky permutations that really stretch their own boundaries as well those of the genre of “Cuban jazz”.
The real stars of this album for me are the four university professors that comprise the Santiago Jazz Saxophone Quartet. These inventive and funky players are, in Bunnett’s opinion, “the best saxophone quartet” ever—on the evidence of this album, I would agree. They are loose and elastic, whether honking away madly on the 30-second opening cut “Funky Mambo” or creating a smooth backdrop for Bunnett’s solo work on the bolero-flavored “La Comparsa”. They blend, they support, they provide their own rhythmic accompaniment—and, as they show on the classic danzón “Almendra”, they can cook too: they blow for the first two and a half minutes of the piece without any help at all, and you don’t even notice. They appear on six of the 11 tracks here, and it’s pretty clear that they need a record deal. Whether or not politics will allow this remains to be seen.
But the rougher nature of Santiago comes through through the other groups. Los Hoyos, a huge amalgamation of conga players who also sing and play bagpipe-sounding horns called “Chinese cornets”—one of the interesting lessons in the liner notes is that many Cubans have Chinese ancestry—are definitely out of control and completely great, as they show on two key collaborations. “Jane y los Hoyos” is a huge blowout where you can actually feel all 38 congas pounding and all 38 voices shouting and those Chinese cornets hooting . . . it’s glorious insanity, and far from the smoothness of the Buena Vista crew. Of course, the fact that the SJSQ opens the track and that a 60-piece German brass band closes it out doesn’t hurt. And the extra craziness that Los Hoyos contribute to Durán’s arrangement of the SJSQ’s “Donna Lee”—and featuring nice trumpet work from Cramer, who otherwise tries to stay behind the scenes—make for a quite unusual hearing of a Charlie Parker classic.
And who the hell is David Virelles and how did he get to be such a wonderful pianist? The kid was 16 when this album was recorded, and he’s just a flat-out genius. Let’s not mess around here—he’s another Gonzalo Rubalcaba in the making. We need to get over ourselves and formalize relations with Cuba; not just so that we stop starving their people, but so that this amazing prodigy can get a nice big fat record deal and astound us for years to come. Try listening to his solo on the slow-burn-turned-wild-danzón closer “Alma de Santiago” without your jaw hitting the floor—can’t be done, folks, he’s too good. He can be understated, as he shows on “Lagrimas Negras”, or hot, on “Camaronsito Seco”: he’s the real thing, and if we don’t hear more from him it’s our loss, not his.
The closest this disc gets to typical is on the tracks where Los Jubilados are playing. We’ve been hearing a lot of Havana son lately, and although “Son Santiaguero” (the helpful title of one of the songs here) is wilder and more “rustic” than the Havana style, it still sounds like something off an Ibrahim Ferrer album . . . until Bunnett starts to play. She is really a wonderful flautist and soprano player, and deserving of a wider audience, which she will gain if she keeps knocking out great stuff like this.
Overall, we like Jane Bunnett a lot, we think that the SJSQ and David Virelles should be huge stars, we’d kill to see Los Hoyos live, and even Los Jubilados are pretty sweet. A great album in and of itself, and a great harbinger of things to come.