Jazz From the Lost Generation in Cuba


CUBA JAZZ, JAM SESSIONS 1956-1961 / GÚTIERREZ: Descarga Caliente. Introduccion. Cimmarón. Oye Mi Ritmo Cha Cha Cha. Opus for Dancing. DOMINGUEZ: Perfidia. VALDÉS: Theme on Mambo / Julio Guttiérez y Orquestra / PORTILLO: Tronbón Criollo. LÓPEZ VALDÉS: Controversia de Metales. Estudio es Trompeta. Descarga Guajira. La Inconclusa. Redención. La Luz. A Gozar. Timbero. PEÑALVER: Guajeo  de Saxos. ECHEVARRIA: Oye Mi Tres Montuno. CONTRERAS: Malanga Amarilla. CASTILLO: Cógele en Golpe. LÉON: Pamparana. ESTIVILL: Descargo Cubana. Goza mi Trumpeta. A Gozar Timbero. Sopresa de Flauta. JIMÉNEZ: Olé.  / Cachao y su Combo / UNKNOWN: Ogueré mi China. Descarga Mambo. SIMON-SUNSHINE: El Manisero (The Peanut Vendor), LÓPEZ VALDÉS: Descarga Mexicana. Descarga General. El Fantasma del Combo. El Bonbín de Perucho. La Floresta. Rumba Sabrosa. YOUMANS-CAESAR: Tea for Two (Avance Juvenil). UNKNOWN: Descarga Ñañiga. Popurrit de Congas / Cachao y su Orquestra Cubana / LÓPEZ-VALDÉS: Es Differente. Mucho Humo. Las Boinas de Cachao. PUENTE: Cha Cha Cha de los Pollos. ECHEVARRIÁ: Leche con Rón / Walfredo de los Reyes & his All Star Band / ECHEVARRIA CALLAVA: Montuno Guajiro. Cha Cha Cha Montuno / Niño Rivera’s Cuban All-Stars / FAJARDO: Pa’ Coco Solo / Fajardo and his All Stars / AGUILO: El Viejo Yumba. YOUMANS-CAESAR: Tea for Two (Descarga). COLLAZO PEÑA: La Ultima Noche. BARRETTO: Descarga Criolla / Rolando Aguiló y su Estrellas / O’FARRILL: Descarga Número Uno. Descarga Número Dos. FIFFÉ: Bilongo / Chico O’Farrill y All Star Cubano Musicians / Frémeaux & Associés FA 5722

The annotator for this 3-CD set, Bruno Blum, makes the rather bold claim that the Caribbean, and particularly Haiti and Cuba, were the true home of the African music that morphed into jazz. New Orleans, he claims, being a Creole city, was “first and foremost a Caribbean city.” To a certain extent, this is true; there was always a strong tinge of Cuban music in particular in the French Quarter of New Orleans where the Creoles lived, which is why Jelly Roll Morton always claimed that good jazz must always include “the Spanish tinge” (which he picked up from all the Cubans and Puerto Ricans who brought their bananas and other tropical fruits into the port). But of course early jazz was not just a product of the Creoles in the French Quarter. It was also a product of the African-Americans who lived in other sections of New Orleans; in fact, there is strong evidence to suggest that the black musicians were the first to start playing loose rhythms and improvisations in their rags and cakewalks, thus transforming that music into something different. Along the way, both the Creoles and the whites in New Orleans mixed their own ideas and ideals into the mix, turning out a melting-pot sort of music that combined the hot rhythms of the African-Americans, the stricter schooling of the whites, and the French-Caribbean influences of the Creoles.

GutierrezAs to the set at hand, it is an historical document of the time when the musical form known as descargas was born in the mid-1950s. The Battista regime in Cuba was brutal to the working class, denying them basic rights, suspending the constitution and supporting the wealthiest landowners, but it did cater heavily to the tourist trade and delighted in creating garish showcases for local talent that outsiders could come and enjoy. Damasio Perez Prado created the very first mambo band that combined the hot rhythm of Cuba with the more disciplined technique and musical forms of American jazz orchestras. His idols were Stan Kenton and Woody Herman, and he first created a sensation in Mexico before emigrating north to New York around 1953 where his hot band took America by storm, turning out such monster hit records as Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White, Patricia, Mambo No. 5 and others.

Aguilo 2The orchestras heard on these CDs were considerably different. They made few if any concession to American tastes, but rather blasted out in a much less formal style. The now-neglected band of Machito, which caused a ripple of excitement on the jazz scene in the late 1940s, just before Perez Prado invaded the U.S., was closer in style to this type of music.

I have not included the long list of musicians’ names in the header of this review because none are known in the USA and also because to do so would have tripled the length of that header. Like Prado’s musicians, the soloists in these bands play in a style that is highly rhythmical but not particularly adventurous harmonically. The solos that trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and his talented sideman played on his 1947-49 big band recordings, several of which used strong Caribbean rhythms supplied by his conga drummer, Chano Pozo, were far superior to these in creativity and originality, but as Blum points out in his liner notes, descargas music was not meant to Cachao 2stimulate the intellect. It was primarily a rhythmic music meant to create a hypnotic spell over the listener, inducing a sort of trance state. Anyone who has seen the landmark film Black Orpheus will understand what I mean. It is the kind of rhythm that, in the neighboring island of Haiti, was often used to create a trance in the voodoo practitioners who smoked drugged cigars to loosen their minds and inhibitions. In a sense, then, this is music as a form of drug—just as many of the original African bands from which the rhythms of jazz descended played, and continue to play, in their home countries. When Louis Armstrong visited the Gold Coast of Africa in the late 1950s, he was startled to hear this music in its original, raw form. It had little to do with the very sophisticated improvisations that he played except in rhythm, but since he was first and foremost a rhythmic improviser, these musicians revered him. They understood where he was coming from, even if he himself did not fully appreciate the link.

FajardoIn the Julio Gutiérrez orchestra, the prize soloists is alto saxist Edilberto Scrich, who plays very interesting solos in a cool style obviously modeled after Paul Desmond with a bit of tenor saxist Stan Getz. Trumpeter Alejandro Vivar, a.k.a. El Negro, is a powerful player with a nice feeling for Latin swing, but doesn’t stray too far from the melody line when improvising (something that would have delighted Morton). One interesting thing is how, except for Gutiérrez, many of the bandleaders here used pseudonyms:”Cachao” was really Israel López Valdés, “Callava” was Niño Rivera, and “Fajardo” was José Alberto Fajardo Ramos. (For those who don’t know, Tito Puente’s was really Ernesto Antonio Puente, Jr.) Many of the musicians also used pseudonyms; in addition to El Negro, there was timbales player Chuchu (Jesus Ezquijarroso), pianist Peruchin (Pedro Nolasco Jústiz Rodriguez), tenor saxist Chombo (Osvaldo Urrutia Silva, violinist Rolito (Adelso Paz Rodriguez), and various percussion players (congas and timbales) with stage names.

CachaoThe sheer fun that all these musicians were having when making these records carries over to the listener. Everyone sounds as if they were playing with a big smile on their faces, and those smiles come through in their solos as well as the ensemble vocal choruses by band members. It’s the kind of music that, like the records of Fats Waller, Louis Armstrong, Django Reinhardt and  Professor Longhair, make you smile as well when you listen to them. It may not be the most creative music in the world, even by Latin jazz standards, but it sure as hell creates a better mood than listening to rock music (well, most rock music, anyway). Think of it as Latin party music with a bit of a higher purpose.

lp coverSome of the best jazz is heard on CD 3, in the tracks featuring Niño Rivera’s Cuban All-Stars. Here, one hears the best improvisations by trumpeter Vivar (El Negro), as well as fine sax solos by Emilio Peñalver and the excellent bass playing of Salvador “Bol” Vivar.  El Fantasma del Combo is a very strange track, starting out with some Halloween-type faux spookiness before moving into an aggressive beat over which the trumpet rides. And a few tracks, such as Rumba Sabrosa by Cachao and his orchestra, sound much more African than strictly Cuban. El Viejo Yumba, by Rolando Aguiló and his All-Stars, is one of the most interesting compositions on the set, with good solos by an unidentified alto saxist.

Undoubtedly, the most stellar name among the bandleaders here is Chico O’Farrill, who had written some advanced charts for Benny Goodman’s bop band in the late 1940s and conducted Charlie Parker’s 1950 recording of Afro-Cuban Jazz Suite. The three tracks led by him here are, by far, the most advanced compositions and arrangements in the entire set: Latin music with a bit of a bop flair, particularly Descarga Número Uno, which has an excellent trombone solo by Delahoza (whoever that was!), a peppy flute contribution by Richard Eglies, and a brief but good bass solo by Tata Valdés, a.k.a. Cachao (one of our previous session leaders).

Interestingly, the release of this set coincides with Panart Records’ own reissue of these same recordings on five LPs (or five CDs) on November 9 of this year. For those who are interested, the Panart collection also includes a limited edition Panart t-shirt exclusively through the Craft Recordings online store, and may be purchased HERE. Overall, however, this is a better bargain. Well worth hearing if you like Latin jazz, particularly the third CD.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Read my book, From Baroque to Bop and Beyond: An extended and detailed guide to the intersection of classical music and jazz


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