Dafnis Prieto: Absolute Quintet

Dafnis Prieto
Absolute Quintet

Whereas the Cuban virtuoso Gonzalo Rubalcaba recently produced a CD celebrating in performance the “European” concert solo piano music of their home culture (Legit), his compatriot drummer Dafnis Prieto has put together an ensemble for the purposes of performing music that brings together the wide sonic range of different Cuban ensembles. These include echoes of dance orchestra strings, of the sort of Palm Court “light classical” which antedated jazz within international pop music but took on interesting colors in Latin America. Jazz is, however, a binding element in much of the present CD, along with Prieto’s drums. The strings are represented by, or maybe just are (and on all tracks): Dana Leong on cello and Christian Howes, violin (and, on three tracks, what’s called “bass violin” — the last CD of his I saw claimed to feature “baritone violin”).

There’s some fairly stunning string work on “The Stutterer”, which sounds nothing like Palm Court. The acoustic piano does rather more avant-garde-ish things on this splendid stomper, which helps establish the merits of Yosvany Terry’s alto-playing, which is up there with Henry Threadgill’s. This is demonstrated in his guest appearance on “Afrotango”, where the pizzicato and later bowed fiddle, as well as the organ cum synthesizer, give proper variety to the polyrhythms behind the visiting altoist. The cellist does things which diminish any tendency to overplay the fact that this ensemble has no orthodox bassist. Jason Lindner, having keyboard-generated some rock guitar noises on the opening “The Coolest” (a term of approval, since the music is commendably hot), plays lyrically on the Threadgill feature, and Prieto solves the problem of togetherness within a percussion ensemble by doing all that sort of work himself. I really like this maintenance of a slightly brisk medium ballroom dance rhythm as a shifting accompaniment to a stunning alto saxophone feature.

“Morning”, first of three movements of a “One Day Suite” which also has “Afternoon” and “Night”, is a Gil Evans sort of conception, with atmospheric cymbal and cello work before an evocation of drowsiness by cello and violin in harmony. After a stretch from Terry’s soprano, the Hammond organ pads about in slippers with something of the previous night’s dreams about the music. Plucked violin and cello get going, the latter making some lovely noises (or is it Howes’s mysterious bass violin?) Howes certainly gets going, with the drummer doing all manner of things. Gil Evans? George Russell? Certainly Christian Howes! A rush of fresh air, and Terry’s soprano prefaces the thus far progressively more active drummer into a genuine bustle. The strings and soprano combine well in an almost piano concerto middle section. Whereas “Afternoon” sounds at times like very un-jazzy Shostakovich chamber music, Howes’s bass violin gets up a fair swing at the beginning of “Night”, and with sparing ensemble use of synthesizer bass violin and acoustic piano and cello go into a pizzicato nearer to jazzy Ravel (although the actual composer is Prieto, whose virtuoso percussion sustains everything).

“The New Elephant” has a swoop and wail theme, with which the band plays before the drummer makes a transition, and strings and soprano pick up in something between a dance and a crazy set-to with the drummer doing a sort of march time thing. “Renew the Elephant” is very much a feature for drums, with melodic incursions first of soprano and strings, then synthesizer, then strings, a brief tenor solo from Terry, then a lot of contrapuntal and cross-rhythm interaction making the most of the strings. It builds into a dance tune before a concluding section in which the synthesizer tolls like a bell. “Innocent Bird” opens with an alternation of contrasting sections, sentimental fiddle trading fours with a strongly rhythmic organ-energized motif from which Howes sets off on some wild playing. Handy man to have around, also in the return to alternation between sentimental passages and stomping keyboard-based figures. With the apparently indefatigable Prieto hitting back-beats, Lindner’s positively sanctified organ sustains momentum until the ensemble conclusion.

Sixty years ago on “Cubano Be, Cubano Bop” George Russell composed something wonderful around Chano Pozo’s Cuban drumming with Dizzy Gillespie’s big band. Thirty, fifty and more years later he was doing things generally like this equally classy business. This is one interesting band, put together with this music by a major drummer with great composing credentials.

RATING 8 / 10