Cruz Montero’s Rapsodia Cubana

NXW76154-2 cover

2021 winnerRAPSODIA CUBANA / GAVILÁN: Pan con timba. El pájaro carpintero. Epilogo. LÓPEZ-NUSSA: Reencuentro. Danza de los Inocentes.  Zontime 1: Puesto y convidado. VITIER: Contradanza Festiva. Danza de fin de siglo. Tarde en la Habana. ALÉN: Danzón Legrand. Romanza Maria la O. Tico-Tico no fubá / Yamilé Cruz Montero, pno; Christos Asonitis, dm/cajón/pandiero / Naxos World NXW76154-2

Here’s an unusual album of Cuban music, scheduled for release January 22, written for piano to which percussion has been added. Cuban classical pianist Yamilé Cruz Montero plays here the music of several composers unknown in the West, such as Aldó Lopez Gavilán, Ermán López-Nussa, José Maria Vitier and Andrés Alén, with tremendous zest and drive. These pieces are more entertaining than deep, but it doesn’t really matter because they are interesting—not only rhythmically but harmonically and in the shape of the melodic lines. Every piece on this amazing album leaps out at you from your speakers like a juggernaut, and each one is fascinating.

Nor does the percussionist play throughout every track. The second piece on this CD, López-Nussa’s Reencuentro, is played mostly solo (the percussion comes in, very lightly at first, about halfway through), yet even here Montero maintains a lively rhythmic feel. She plays with so much energy and excitement that you almost feel as if she has been pent up for a long period of time and just now is able to get all of her feelings out on CD.

Cuban rhythms are, of course, very different from those of not only America but also of other Latin countries, but even as far back as 1906 recordings by Cuban musicians which circulated in the United States had a strong impact on American musical culture. Yet Cuban rhythms did not really cross with any mainstream American music until the 1940s, when jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie hired Chano Pozo (full name: Luciano Pozo González) to play conga drums in his big bebop band. Pozo’s recordings of Manteca and Cubano Be, Cubano Bop remain landmarks in the fusion of American jazz with Cuban rhythm.


Yamilé Cruz Montero (from the artist’s website)

But here, Cruz Montero puts the focus on pieces with a strong classical bent. One of the most fascinating, to me, was Vitier’s Contradanza Festiva (track 3) with its remarkable, almost Bach-like use of counterpoint, and the same composer’s Danza de fin de siglo (End of the Century Dance) almost sounds like something Albéniz might have written. Come to think of it, I’d love to hear Montero play Albéniz’ Iberia. I’ll bet she’d put a Cuban stomp or stamp on it.

Nussa’s Danza de los inocentes combines an effervescent, almost stomping rhythm with complex polyphony and some very interesting themes, while Alén’s Danza Legrand puts a Cuban spin on the style of the famous French popular song writer of the 1960s. But to be honest, every single track on this stupendous CD is a gem. Everything is played with energy whether the tempo is up, slow or medium, and Cruz Montero’s articulation is so clean that not a note of it goes past your ears unnoticed.

I was also very pleased with Christos Asonitis’ percussion playing. He takes great care to add color and zest to each piece without interfering with the musical progression. This is not as easy as it sounds; it takes not only talent but great tact and taste. Listen, for instance, how he enlivens the Danzon Legrand without interfering with the very complex writing. In Zontime 1: Puesto y convidado, Montero adds a ragtime touch to the syncopation while Asonitis cleverly manages to play against the beat without pushing the rhythmic flow out of shape. A remarkable performance. Then, in Gavilán’s El pájaro carpintero  (The Woodpecker), the music shifts gears to a sort of uptempo Latino stomp, and Cruz Montero’s left hand provides a strong rhythmic kick of its own. And, in Alén’s quite complex rewriting of the old hit tune Tico-Tico, Cruz Montero shows us how much can be made of a simplistic but catchy theme.

Is there such a thing as a perfect album? This one surely comes close. Everything about it is charming, engaging and attractive, and there is clearly enough musical variety among these pieces to make it a must-have disc for those who like both Latin classical and pop-jazz music. Maravillosa!

—© 2021 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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