Our Plan in Havana: At Street Level, a Pulsing Galaxy of Rhythm

Jun 1, 2017

The tune was familiar yet unfamiliar, an iconic object seen through a funhouse prism. It was “El Manisero,” the bedrock Cuban standard, refurbished with shadowy postbop harmony and a rolling montuno in 18/8 time. Portillo & Cauce was playing to a packed house at La Zorra y el Cuervo, one of the leading jazz clubs in Havana, and they couldn’t have sounded sleeker or more modern.

This moment transpired on the last of my four nights in Havana, where I was gathering sounds and impressions in the lead-up to International Jazz Day, a month ago. It was, in fact, shortly after the International Jazz Day Global All-Star Concert, which featured musicians of more than a dozen nationalities, most of them hailing either from Cuba or the United States.

Along with two other journalists, I’d changed out of my suit and dashed over to La Zorra y el Cuervo, where a line stretched out the door. The club has a unique street profile: patrons reach the basement room through an English telephone booth, as if stepping into the jazz equivalent of the TARDIS, from Dr. Who.  

Portillo and Cauce at La Zorra y el Cuervo, Havana, Cuba. April 30, 2017.
Credit Nate Chinen

I had never heard of Portillo & Cauce, a band led by pianist Yadasny José Portillo Herrera, who is in his late-30s, and has made his name in Cuba playing the classical repertoire — Rachmaninov, Chopin — as well as jazz, salsa and son. There was a certain spark in hearing him remake “El Manisero,” a catchy son-prégon first recorded in 1930, and still recognized across Latin America, if not much of the world. It felt a bit like hearing Nicholas Payton, the New Orleans trumpeter, put a sleek new contour to “When the Saints Go Marching In,” on his album Gumbo Nouveau back in 1995.

Like Payton, Portillo has his own book of tunes: they appear on the recent album Portillo & Cauce. Those compositions made up most of the set, which I found riveting, no less for the modernist language of his horn players than for the agile potency of his rhythm section, with a percussionist and a drummer in fluid sync. Later I found some footage of Portillo working with a slightly different ensemble but the same tunes, including “A Emiliano,” his album’s opening track.

It’s no secret that music is thick on the ground in Havana, but even armed with this knowledge, I was struck by the quality and sheer intensity of the musicianship there. One evening at a sleek club called El Tablao, I saw a go-for-broke set by Bellita y Jazz Tumbatá, a heralded fusion group. Led by a keyboardist and trouper named Bellita, it was most notable for the work of her husband, Miguel Miranda López, who simultaneously played electric bass and congas, while punching an insistent clave on a cowbell with one foot. This was beyond the usual realm of multi-tasking, edging into the rarefied zone occupied by a gonzo maverick like Rahsaan Roland Kirk.

Christian Sands, Ben Williams and Antonio Hart at El Tablao, April 28, 2017.
Credit Nate Chinen

After Bellita’s set, an preplanned takeover brought several American musicians — alto saxophonist Antonio Hart, bassist Ben Williams and pianist Christian Sands — onstage with a Cuban drummer. Their performance was spirited and strong, but Sands later told me that the real action transpired off the stage, as they were walking through Old Havana in the wee hours and stumbled across a street jam.

A similar energy, bracing and combustible, could be found at a few different Afro-Cuban rumbas around the city, including the regular Sunday-afternoon tourist draw at Callejón de Hamel, a narrow, art-filled alleyway in the Cayo Hueso district.

I was even more taken with the rhythmic power and dynamism of Explosión Rumbera, a brilliant ensemble presented as part of the weeklong International Jazz Day festivities, in an outdoor plaza next to the Teatro Mella. (If I were to single out one standout musical experience from the trip, this would be a contender.)

Another lasting impression was made not by a performance so much as the scene at a given place: La Fábrica de Arte Cubano, a stylish art complex that occupies the vast, labyrinthine footprint of an old cooking oil plant. Since opening a few years ago, the Fábrica has become the heart and hub of Havana’s youthful creative class: Over the course of several visits, I stumbled across a fashion show (complete with runway models), a pop-funk DJ set (complete with crowded dance floor) and multiple exhibitions (running the gamut from chic multimedia work to outsider folk art). Horacio “El Negro” Hernandez, the great Cuban drummer, told me unequivocally that the Fábrica was the place to hear the latest developments in the local jazz scene. 

In the main music venue on the premises, I got a good taste of the Ramón Valle Trio, led by its namesake pianist and composer, who now resides in Europe. I didn’t stay long enough to catch an elated collaboration between Valle and that evening’s headliner, bassist Marcus Miller. But Valle proudly posted some evidence of the encounter after the fact.

The promise of a breezily cooperative cultural exchange was the overarching theme of the trip, officially riddled as it was with educational clinics, pointed guest appearances and intentional collisions. The Global All-Star Concert was an insistent distillation of this ideal, almost to the point of parody. But that doesn’t mean transnational dialogue was something other than a practical reality, even away from the grandeur of a gala stage.

Case in point: after absorbing Portillo & Cauce at La Zorra y el Cuervo, I followed a handful of American musicians to Sarao’s, a popular nightclub with the curvilinear, soft-fluorescent décor of someplace you’d expect bottle service in South Beach. The headlining band was Interactivo, a hyperkinetic combination of timba band, jazz-fusion outfit and Cuban hip-hop crew.

Interactive at Sarao's, May 1, 2017

Interactivo is led by Roberto Carcassés — the son of Cuban trumpeter, vocalist and all-purpose show-business survivor Bobby Carcassés, who had just presided over the exuberant finale of the Global All-Star Concert. Scanning the tiny stage, I recognized a few other players from the concert, including drummer Oliver Valdés and trumpeter Julio Padrón. The band’s front line featured a pair of electrifying singers, Brenda Navarrete and Francis del Río.

The band was both comfortably loose and virtually airtight, in its ensemble cohesion and its turn-on-a-dime control. Spiky, odd-metered fusion workouts came juxtaposed with powerhouse son, all girded with exuberant Afro-Cuban polyrhythm. I had arrived with trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, and gradually some other Americans filed in: Antonio Hart, Christian Sands, bassists Esperanza Spalding and Ben Williams. So did drummer Antonio Sanchez and saxophonists Melissa Aldana and Jure Pukl, who hail from outside the United States but belong to the New York scene. 

Eventually Spalding, Sands and Akinmusire hopped onstage to sit in for a couple of tunes. At one point the band snuck in an interpolation of the “Happy Birthday” theme, for Akinmusire — who, now that it was well past midnight, had just turned 35. The vibe was not only collegial but practically familial, even after the set was over and the musicians spilled out onto the sidewalk in front of the club.

At one point, as Valdés was explaining some subtle regional variations in clave, several flatbed trucks rolled by, each one loaded with men in red shirts. I’m assuming they were headed to Revolution Square for Cuba’s May Day celebration, a display of pageantry and propaganda set to begin in several hours.

I had a looming deadline and a morning lobby call, so I headed back to my hotel. It was past 3 a.m. at this point. But as I left, a whole passel of musicians — Americans and Cubans alike — were traipsing off to another bar, in pursuit of another jam.