11/10/11

Stefon Harris, David Sánchez & Christian Scott’s ‘Ninety Miles’ Project

Young Cuban players and three yanks in a thrilling cultural exchange

When Concord Records suggested to vibraphonist Stefon Harris, tenor saxophonist David Sánchez and trumpeter Christian Scott that they record together, the three musicians were immediately amenable to the idea. Although they’d never collaborated before, they were well aware of and admired each other’s work, and felt the possibility was strong that some righteous, unique music would emerge.

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Christian Scott
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Then the label’s reps, Executive VP/Head of A&R John Burk and Senior Director of A&R Chris Dunn, hit them with part two of the proposal: They would make this recording in Cuba with local musicians and play a gig in Havana while they were there. In addition, the weeklong experience would be filmed for a documentary. Suddenly, what might have been an exhilarating session in New York had become something else: a very rare and deep cross-cultural exchange. The result is Ninety Miles (Concord Picante), recorded in May 2010 at Havana’s legendary EGREM studios with young Cuban pianists Rember Duharte and Harold López-Nussa and their bands. A DVD featuring “sneak peeks” from the film, which has received limited screenings in the U.S., accompanies the nine-track CD. “All three of us jumped at the chance of making a record,” says Scott, who is at 28 the youngest of the ad hoc trio. “It’s not very often that you get asked to do a record with guys you actually want to play with. But as soon as they said Cuba, I said, ‘Yeah, that’s cool.’”

Due to bureaucratic red tape between the governments and the musicians’ busy schedules, planning took more than a year. Although all but Scott had material to contribute (the trumpeter was exhausted after writing 33 tracks for a trilogy he plans to release), there was no discussion between the American and the Cuban artists prior to their initial meeting. “We had no idea how the record was going to turn out,” says Harris, “but I actually thrive in those types of settings. It’s really about the connection between human beings. It was an interesting dynamic even going through the rehearsal process. So much can be said with notes alone.”

Both Sánchez, 43, who grew up in Puerto Rico, and the Albany, N.Y.-born Harris, 38, speak Spanish, so communication came easily. Once the players got down to business, ideas meshed. “When we started playing it was very spontaneous,” says Sánchez. “We did write some music so it wasn’t all improvisation, but we didn’t know what they were writing, so it was a true experiment.”

“It was really a matter of everybody being open-minded and creative and allowing the record to reveal itself,” adds Harris.

The results are a seamless confluence of classic Afro-Cuban ideas filtered through contemporary New Orleans and New York jazz sensibilities. Intricate yet relentlessly in the groove, the material is tightly arranged while allowing each of the five co-leaders to express freely. Duharte’s opening “Ñengueleru” is a polyrhythmic feast, bass- and piano-propelled and colored by a dynamic Sánchez solo. “Brown Belle Blues,” written specifically by Harris for the López-Nussa ensemble to perform, allots ample solo time to Scott and Harris, and Sánchez’s moody but nevertheless celebratory “City Sunrise” was, says the writer, inspired by Cameroonian music. “It’s very African and has nothing to do with Cuba,” he says. “I just wrote it for the project and shaped it up according to the concept.”

Musically, things flowed; technologically, not so much. The Americans, accustomed to state-of-the-art recording equipment, found themselves confronted with antiquated gear that didn’t always cooperate. “I must say, that was one of the challenges we faced,” says Sánchez. “The equipment wasn’t really happening. You would hear a constant crackling in your headphones. It’s amazing how it came together.”

Similarly, when the crew convened at Havana’s Amadeo Roldán Theater for the sole live date of the trip, the Americans quickly learned that certain amenities of home were not to be taken for granted. “It’s an old theater and there’s not enough ventilation, and the air conditioner was broken,” says Sánchez. “We were suffocating! But the energy was such that we just kept on going.”

Harris concurs. “It was about 110 degrees,” he says. “If you look at the video footage, you’ll see we’re drenched. But the audience celebrated every bit of energy we put forward, and it really was a special feeling.”

Ultimately, what the trio took away from the experience, more than anything else, was a sense that music is integral to the lives of the Cuban people. “Music, in Cuba, is more than just something you sit and watch onstage,” says Harris. “It’s related to the way that people walk, to the food that they cook. It was nice to be in an environment like that, artistically.”

That feeling was contagious, adds the New Orleans-born Scott, whose first trip to Cuba came when he was a 14-year-old in a band led by his uncle, saxophonist Donald Harrison. “I’ve learned through my experience that it doesn’t matter whether someone is a Communist or a Socialist or a fuckin’ Tea Partier,” he says. “At the end of the day, if a person is willing to be honest and vulnerable in a situation where you’re making music, you’ll find you have more in common with people from other cultures than you don’t have in common. I just appreciate the opportunity to be able to give some more validity to that.”

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