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Horacio "El Negro" Hernandez: Italuba

Robert R. Calder

Horacio "el Negro" Hernandez


Label: Pimienta
US Release Date: 2004-04-27
UK Release Date: Available as import

This performance opens with a strangely direct restatement of the idea implied in its title, which jams together "Italy" and "Cuba". The music sets together rhythmic patterns which "interfere" one with the other, producing sudden stops and forward lurches. The effect would be alarming in the progress of a car with an ill-managed non-automatic gearbox, but the crashing of gears and generation of sudden jolts in a Cuban band on-stage can be a very positive thing. Cars don't dance. These four guys do.

"A Night in Torino" is actually "Una Notte in Tunisia" (or Una Noche or A Night). I was almost expecting to hear Dizzy Gillespie with one of those expert and inspired Latin American small groups he assembled behind him on record in later years, playing 1940s tunes like the one I just sort of mentioned. I'm not going to claim that Amik Guerra is a replacement of the irreplaceable, but he's certainly no imitation. He has a nice big dark sound on trumpet or flugelhorn, open or muted, and really you get to hear a lot of what he can do in the brief interludes he's allowed on that title -- between the piano gyrations and rhythmic variations of Ivan Bridon Napoles, and the proliferation of the leader's percussion. A very nice trumpeter, who does get to solo elsewhere -- but there ought to have been a bit more.

On "Puerto Rico" Hernandez does a lot more inspired thumping and thrashing, always to the point, and the tuneful pair of vocal refrains by the band together (they have conventionally attractive voices) really build up the rhythmic complexity even beyond their achievement as first-class instrumentalists. It's amazing that when the startlingly active percussionist leaves off his work of ten men, and simply accompanies, how the swing and internal patterns intensify at a bound -- all from a fairly traditional sort of Cuban vocal quartet interlude.

As well as playing a lot of conventional Cuban dance-band see-sawing piano Napoles makes judicious use of electronic keyboards without in the least showing off or exploring the range of tonalities and the million other things many-fingered clowns do when not so devoted to getting on with making music. There are all the virtues of an authoritative Cuban dance-hall quartet, as well as several to be expected only from the most accomplished professional musicians.

The music is sort of cubistic: when a jazz solo has got going suddenly the music takes off at a different angle. Never the whole jug as one shape, pretty well always another angle, and then another. This might be thought a distracting characteristic, but each time the bit of business which gets truncated is unusually interesting in serious jazz terms. Plenty was left in reserve and unplayed. Clearly the musicians are having a good time getting carried away. It's not always clear what instrument Daniel Martinez Izquierdo is playing, between the "electric bass" and "baby bass" mentioned. Sometimes he seems to be the band's guitarist, other times he suddenly makes a big electronic bass noise, and it's like four dancers suddenly piled into a heap and getting up immediately into other movements. A lot of the time he's just a very good bassist, whatever the stringed box in his hands.

It's great fun, the high-class contemporary jazz giving way to its Latin setting, change of direction following on change of direction. Probably too wary of seeming to have gone on too long, they don't switch to another angle so hastily as to foment dissatisfaction. There is no repetition, but the absence of anything monotonous -- the non-aficionado can complain that some other Cuban jazz CDs consist in a variety of beginnings to always the same performance -- has perhaps one easy explanation. The playing time is short enough to have justified a complaint on a vinyl LP before there were CDs. There's something under 35 minutes of music. Presumably they go on a bit longer on live dates, but they wouldn't then need simply to repeat things for want of inspiration, it does seem clear.

It does make a change not to be complaining that newer technology -- including the easier economics of the CD medium and the even longer playing-times possible -- has yet again allowed or even encouraged players or leaders to go on even when they had nothing to say. The inclusion of emptiness and padding was a complaint when the 12-inch vinyl album came in and replaced the mere four-minute single and then the 10-inch vinyl disc (I have read the complaints; I am not so old as to remember that time). There were also LPs which suffered from both self-indulgent longwindedness and too short a playing time. Nowadays one can find an acceptable forty-five minutes interspersed with vacuities in an hour's playing time, or one wonderful hour-long CD badly marred by being spread among another thin hour on two CDs. Still, I can't believe that we couldn't have had more from this splendid group to make the CD more competitive. The cut-time programming doesn't seem to come at cut price, and these men could obviously have gone on for sufficiently longer -- adding to this CD both range and satisfaction for those who have bought it, and a greater incentive to others to join them. These guys are quality, and of course this discussion's intended addressees include the potentially interested non-specialist, buying widely, to whom not even "El Negro" is a name well known. He doesn't waste anybody's time in this lively set.

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