CD project Havana Nights - Mike Garvan Group

Paquito d'Rivera's rhythm section smokes on pianist Garvan's Latin project

Cape Cod pianist Mike Garvan is living out one of his dreams -- his original compositions are being recorded by some of the best musicians of our time. He could never have guessed the catalyst would be attending a choral concert at a local school.

As a teenager growing up in South Florida, Mike drove around with friends listening to the radio, which was heavily formatted to play Cuban and Latin music. “All you could get on the radio was from Cuba,” he says; Cuba being a scant 90 miles away. Musically, Mike enjoyed Stan Getz and Sergio Mendes. At Boston University in the late 1960’s, Mike and his roommate picked up WGBH on FM radio at night, listening to traditional jazz pianists Bill Evans and Oscar Peterson, along with Herbie Hancock and Pat Metheny, who utilized a lot of Latin rhythms.

Garvan did not hear of jazz/Latin/Bebop/Classical saxophone-clarinetist impresario and six-time Grammy winner Paquito D’Rivera, until the mid-1980’s when Rivera was already a huge star. Meanwhile, Garvan created original compositions, spanning the ‘70’s through the ‘90’s, playing out with various bands, where live audiences would request the originals by title. With each new band, Mike would break out the tunes, but he had not yet recorded them. “They were just sitting there, unrecorded, beckoning…” he remembers. At a Cape Cod gig, Mike heard a monster jazz and Latin bassist, and asked pal and fellow pianist Joe Delaney, “who’s that?” It was Grammy winner and Paquito D’Rivera bassist Oscar Stagnaro, who would eventually play a huge part in Garvan’s original project.

Mike Garvan had been paying rapt attention to bass players since Jaco Pastorius, and he marveled at Stagnaro’s playing. “You hear him on Paquito’s CDs and you cannot ignore him,” enthuses Garvan. Mike had heard Paquito D’Rivera’s drummer Mark Walker, on a CD Reunion, following the emigration of Arturo Sandoval, who had recorded with Paquito in Cuba. When Mike saw the ad in The Cape Codder for “Raiz Brasileira” collaboration between The Chatham Chorale and The Oscar Stagnaro Sextet last March, he recalls, “I looked at that and thought ‘somebody’s on acid in the programming department’! This can’t be true.”

Garvan recalls “it was an odd mix of idioms. How could those two groups play together? Everyone associates Margaret Bossi’s group with legit, button-down choral music and perhaps Mozart.” But indeed, it was true. The marriage of choral and funk Latin was an outstanding combination that won raves and standing ovations that day at Mattacheese Middle School in West Yarmouth. Mike had stashed his rough demo of originals in his pocket – every musician knows to be prepared 24/7 with their demo at the ready. When the concert ended, Mike approached Oscar Stagnaro and offered him the CD. Stagnaro very graciously took it, and offered Mike his own CD in return, to Mike’s surprise. Stagnaro’s CD featured brother pre-eminent Latin session guitarist Ramon Stagnaro, drummer Alex Acuna, and Dave Samuels on vibes.

“Here I handed Oscar my little CD and he hands me his internationally distributed, major-label CD!” Garvan marvels. He laughs, “I figure Oscar is gonna use my CD as target practice or he can hold it up to his students at Berklee and say ‘never play like this!’” To his continued surprise, Mike received an email from Oscar saying he liked the tunes, and “let’s proceed.” Garvan says of Stagnaro, “He is so responsive. You get immediate attention. He’s constantly at [the business of communication].”

Mike still needed the right drummer for the project. Stagnaro and drummer Mark Walker are the tightly masterful rhythm section who tour with Paquito D’Rivera. Walker also plays with Carribean Jazz Project led by Dave Samuels; Walker also tours with group Oregon. On a phone call, Stagnaro recommended Mike get Walker, his longtime collaborator and friend, to play on the project. Mike asked, “How am I going to get Mark Walker?” Oscar replied, “I work with him.” Garvan almost dropped the phone. “That was the last thing I could think would happen. That the drummer who was on my Reunion CD would maybe play on my CD! It was so beyond my imagination.” After re-listening to Reunion, it was evident that Walker employed the same rhythmic grooves Mike intended on his own compositions.

For Garvan’s original project entitled Noches de La Habana, he also utilizes the wealth of Cape Cod musical talent available. Garvan is fortunate to have Bruce Abbott leading on tenor and soprano sax; Steve Ahern on flugel horn and trumpet, with Fred Fried on guitar, and recorded at Ron Ormsby’s REO Studios in Centerville. “It is a privilege to have these local professional musicians on the project. They have all worked very hard and risen to the occasion. It’s been demanding and challenging, and we wanted to do much more than just ‘get it right’. To have great players like this as interpreters is a joy.”

There were two recording sessions with Stagnaro and Walker. “We did all nine tunes in six hours – a marathon session.” The sessions were virtually seamless, and inspiring. “The most exciting musical moments are almost always unforeseen. You get a striking musical moment that just could never be foreseen. Beauty is in the ear of the beholder”. Father Oscar Stagnaro and son/percussionist Paolo Stagnaro came back to add specific percussion. Nineteen years young, Paolo has been a professional musician for the past 12 years, beginning at age three with the Peruvian Cajon group Peru Mestizo, led by Oscar and Teresa Stagnaro. Garvan was especially inspired watching father and son make music together in the studio. “There was a father/son bonding, with mutual respect, both musical and genealogical,” Mike smiles.

Garvan’s title track speaks to a more serious and somber tone than much of Havana Latin music, which tended to be high-energy and optimistic, in contrast to the bleak period in ‘60’s Cuban history. The tune La Primavera is a celebration of spring. According to Garvan, “since Cuba doesn’t have a physical spring, this could speak to a political spring”. Mike gets a kick out of playing samba whistle on the CD, the first time he’s played anything but piano; strings have yet to be added to the mix.

Of Stagnaro’s contribution, Garvan is effusive. “Oscar brought to the table a knowledge of Latin music that I’m ignorant of. He’s The Man. He’s the best in the world at it. It was such an educational experience for me to get out of his way and see him do his thing.” Stagnaro has published a comprehensive book on bass for students to learn all kinds of Latin bass grooves; it comes with three play-at-home CDs. As an educator, Stagnaro has made major contributions to Berklee, as has Mark Walker, who also teaches at Berklee and the Drummer’s Collective in New York.

The end result is amazing. Rough tracks showcase Garvan’s strong writing skills and evocative melodies, with the unbeatable Stagnaro/Walker rhythm section taking it to another level. “It’s astonishing and very fulfilling to have my tunes recorded by such great musicians,” says Garvan. In this economy, it’s difficult to mount a concert with 9 -10 musicians, accurately representing the repertoire and taking a chance that 200 people will show up. “The first hundred people barely cover the cost of getting into the venue,” says Garvan, who is going with a smaller ensemble in order to keep playing. The melodies are not written to be played by piano—they’re horn melodies—but Garvan wants the music out there. For two years, he played out exclusively with bass player, Ron Ormsby. Adding a third piece via percussion is a sound investment, as the set at Harvest Wine Gallery attests to, bringing in a large crowd, on a Tuesday night, no less. Berklee alum/drummer Dave Scandurra is in-demand on the Cape and beyond, where he plays with The Mark Greel band at Pain D’Avignon in Hyannis. This guy is a force…

The large group has played Cotuit Center for the Arts and Cape Cod Cultural Center. Future plans are hThe Lily Pad in Cambridge and Center for the Arts in Natick, MA.

For upcoming concerts and CDs, visit Mike Garvan via Facebook at

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Cheryl Kain