Afro-Cuban Jazz Summit

The concert included three ensembles, the Afro-Cuban Drum and Dance Ensemble, the Latin Jazz Ensemble and, the featured group, the Wayne Wallace Latin Jazz Quintet (from San Francisco). It was the culmination of a week long residency by the Quintet’s percussionist Michael Spiro. The performances themselves were a mixed representation of styles that have emerged throughout the history of the Americas. The Drum and Dance ensemble performance included styles such as Guaguancó, and Rumba. One of their pieces featured Michael Spiro on Congas. The Latin Jazz ensemble went as far south as Brazil, with a Samba that featured a Tambourine solo, among others. They also played styles such as Son, Danzón and Boogaloo (featuring Ryan Smith on Flute, Wayne Wallace on Trombone and Nate Bogert on Tenor Saxophone), incorporating a Spanish influence (in the Danzón) and a Disco influence (in the Boogaloo, which was actually written in New York city by a Puerto Rican Conga player named Ray Barreto).

While these three performances did not encompass the entire scope of Afro-Cuban music, it seemed as if they represented different aspects of it. The Afro-Cuban Drum and Dance Ensemble shed light on the sense of community that Africans may have brought to the Americas. They featured choreographed dance, as well as improvised dance, chant, song, all driven and in response to the engine of rhythm. The Latin Jazz Ensemble best addressed the question of what Afro-Cuban music has become, and how people have come to perceive it. For better or…well, you know, the different styles represented (Samba, Boogaloo, Danzón, Son) can be considered congruent under the broad category of “Latin” or, when fused with jazz concepts, “Latin Jazz”. Nevertheless, the amount of variety performed by the Latin Jazz Ensemble gives credit to the malleability that African rhythms possess.

The concert was unfortunately difficult to produce. The transition between the Afro-Cuban Drum and Dance Ensemble and the Latin Jazz Ensemble was lengthy, noticeably lengthy. The change from one ensemble to the other was accompanied by the nervous discourse of the director who, after thanking all the people he could think of, was left chatting at the audience. After the second ensemble was ready (the Latin Jazz Ensemble), and a little more chatting, they began their portion of the concert. Once they were finished, there was an intermission, which started immediately after Wayne Wallace gracefully talked the audience into a round of applause for the director for all his effort and let everyone know that they would be back “shortly”. I realized they were also keeping track of time, and it was getting a little late.

Its interesting how one moment, one observation or, in this case, a 3 1/2 hour concert or rather, three 50 minute concerts bring out memories I hand’t realized were memories. It was only yesterday I was in a small northeastern town of Missouri worrying over “all the details” of a Jazz Festival. 32 schools, buses, families, directors, buildings, schedules, judges, clinics, food and, oh wait!, I almost forgot the guest artist (that year it was the Matt Wilson Quintet). Even after months of preparation, the intensity of getting through that day felt unexpected. But, no matter how many bruises the event seemed to accumulate and, let me tell you, there were a lot of things that went unexpectedly, it was all forgiven the moment the guests began to play.

The Wayne Wallace Quintet, after several seemingly failed sound checks, and the decision to shorten their set, transformed the space instantly. It was that moment when you hear something that stops you, and all emotions seem as if they were felt for the first time. As a person who grew up exposed to Afro-Cuban music it was a trip back to an island full of nostalgia. As a musician, it was the realization that I haven’t heard everything, or maybe, I haven’t heard anything. It was the desire to dance, and the excitement to hear more. But it was also 9:45pm (the concert started at 7:30pm), and a good part of the audience had left, adding a drop of disappointment to this delicious recipe of forgiveness. Not because of the time, but because I wanted everyone to be witness.

Wayne Wallace and Michael Spiro interacted with the audience constantly. Whether or not they were responding to how late it was, it worked. By the time they began playing their third piece, most of the audience members that remained were dancing in front of the stage. In the end, the Wayne Wallace Latin Jazz Quintet may have inadvertently stumbled upon the most subtle, yet fundamental role that Afro-Cuban music, as well as much of the African inspired musics that exist in the Americas now, played during its inception. Even though the Quintet’s performance was a distantly refined rendition of the fusion that has been occurring throughout the history of Afro-Cuban music, it transformed the music into a vehicle to set aside the circumstances and take a step away from every day life.


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