Jane Bunnett is undoubtedly one of North America’s most talented and authentic interpreters of Cuban music, having been involved with the country’s music and musicians since well before Ry Cooder’s Buena Vista Social Club experiments. On her last outing, Alma de Santiago, she explored the rural sounds of Santiago, located on the other side of the island from Havana. The music on that album demonstrated the Haitian influence on the music of Cuba, an influence that washed ashore in the early part of the 20th century in Louisiana, helping fuel the creation of the musical language called jazz, which is Bunnett’s genre of choice. Her newest release, Cuban Odyssey is something of a travelogue of Cuban music, much of it culled from a documentary film entitled Spirits of Havana that is now available on a DVD that includes extra music and footage not available on album or film. That documentary, as well as this album, commemorates Bunnett’s trip to Cuba early in 2000.
It should be made clear that, unlike Cooder, Bunnett is not interested in merely reproducing the music of Cuba. Instead, she has done what good jazz artists have always done, which is to incorporate the rhythms and sounds of outside influences into her jazz-based work. The result is music that is not straight ahead jazz nor reinterpretations of traditional Afro-Cuban music, but a true hybrid that adds something to both sounds, much as Dizzy Gillespie did through most of his later career.
Cuban Odyssey opens and closes with new pieces written by Bunnett and recorded in Toronto. The pieces are very much in the jazz tradition, yet utilize the Afro-Cuban rhythms Jane has studied for the last twenty years. “The idea was to do something a bit more cutting edge, more to where I’m headed now,” says Bunnett in a recent interview. “Some of the music on this album is probably the most mainstream Cuban I’ll ever get, but now I’m getting back into a more modern jazz thing, but still working with Cuban rhythms.” The 2000 trip by Bunnett and trumpeter/husband Larry Cramer represented the first time the duo traveled outside of Havana, other than their previous visit to Santiago de Cuba. The adventure starts off in Havana, though, with the Cuban standard “Quitate el Chaqueton (Take Off Your Jacket)”, performed by Bunnett with an amazing group that includes eighteen year-old trumpeter Thommy Rojas, pianist Guillermo Rubalcaba (father of famous pianist Gonzalo), and a stunning array of master percussionists. Bunnett adds her relaxed flute work to the mix, a perfect introduction to this trip into the heart of Cuban music. The next track, “A La Rumba” was recorded in 1997 and features the great singer (and friend of Jane’s) Merceditas Valdes, one of the country’s two greatest singers of all time — Celia Cruz is the other. Following the revolution, Cruz departed to international fame, while Valdes remained in Cuba, laboring in relative obscurity. “It makes me sad, sometimes” says Jane, “because if Merceditas had also left, there is no question that she would have had the same kind of career that Celia Cruz has had. To me, she was like a Billie Holiday or a Sarah Vaughan. There are only a few singers who can touch the soul with the kind of depth that she had.”
In the city of Matanzas, Bunnett and Cramer perform a set of traditional songs, “Suite Matanzas” with a collective group of musicians known as Los Muñequitos de Matanzas, formed in 1952. The recording took place in the solar, a common space that families share, hanging their laundry to dry and hanging out to chat. The twelve-minute collaboration builds slowly, its organic energy building into a powerful force that demonstrates the complete lack of conviction heard in most Western commercial music. There are many points on this recording where one feels that the history of early jazz and pre-jazz music is still there for the hearing, not in the United States, but in Cuba, Haiti, and the rest of the Caribbean. The slaves who played in New Orleans’ Congo Square, not yet indoctrinated into American culture, must have sounded something like this, their joyous conga work infused with other, more alien elements that terrified their oppressors into banning their music altogether. This is where the music of transplanted Africans began to develop into music that would eventually be melded into the framework of American jazz and blues, yet it is an element that often seems ignored or given diminished importance in many histories of the music.
That element is also present in the three tracks that Bunnett recorded in Camabuey with Grupo Vocal Desandann, a ten-voice choir made up of descendents of Haitian slaves. The group sings the traditional songs that their ancestors sang in Patois. This is not music that is typically what we think of as “Cuban”, but it is an integral part of Cuban history, just as the spirituals born of American slavery are an integral part of the United States’ history. Bunnett’s goal was to blend in with these singers, trying not to detract in any way from the solemn dignity of their performance, and she succeeds admirably. Bunnett and Cramer add some joyful flourishes to the unusual calypso song “Prizon”, which actually begins to swing as hard as any Basie groove.
Rounding out Cuban Odyssey are some of the fantastic, upbeat jams that are more familiar to American listeners and which have become high points of some of Bunnett’s Cuban recordings. “El Diablo”, recorded in Cienfuegos with the son band Los Naranjos, is a cautionary tale (“Be careful, sister, he’s the devil and he can take you away”) that allows Cramer to blow some hot trumpet licks. It’s the kind of music that is familiar to fans of Buena Vista Social Club, and Los Naranjos has been playing it since their original formation in 1926. “Pensando En Jane (Thinking of Jane)” was recorded in Toronto, but it features two prominent Cuban musicians. The composer is piano dynamo David Virelles, discovered at the age of 15 by Jane and Larry. Virelles has performed on other Bunnett albums as well as touring with her, and he is destined to become a major jazz pianist. His sound on “Pensando En Jane”, which is his composition, is reminiscent of the early work of Herbie Hancock. Also featured on the track is conga player Vladimir Paisant, another young musician who displays talent well beyond his years. Finally, there is “Ron con Ron (Rum with Rum)”, a jam session featuring Bunnett and Cramer, Guillermo Rubalcaba, master conga player Tata Guines, and vocalist Bobby Carcasses, among others.
The Smithsonian Institution has honored Bunnett with an award for her “lifetime of dedication to the enrichment and diffusion of Latin music.” That dedication, not only to the music’s historical implications and its present, but also to its future, is demonstrated in the fact that Bunnett and Cramer have provided Cuba’s music education system with new and refurbished instruments in order to allow the country to continue teaching its musical heritage in the face of American-induced economic distress. For that alone, Bunnett deserves a place in the history of jazz and Latin music. The fact that her own music, captured on landmark albums such as Cuban Odyssey, is so entertaining and fulfilling is a happy circumstance that makes her truly one of jazz music’s most important contemporary performers.