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Dafnis Prieto: Before & After

The drummer and bandleader takes a pan-Latin perspective

Dafnis Prieto
Dafnis Prieto (photo: Osmani Tellez)

“We played the first week of March at the Jazz Standard with a sextet and went into the studio on the Monday and Tuesday right after,” composer, bandleader, and master percussionist Dafnis Prieto recalls. “My plan was to stay a few days extra just to relax and enjoy a little bit of New York. But then everything started closing, so we escaped. We knew we had to leave and come back to Miami.”

Transparency is the album the multiple Grammy-winner finished recording a few days before the world changed, his third with his sextet. He then completed it “through Zoom. Basically, [co-producer] Eric [Oberstein] and I exchanged notes with the sound engineer Mike Marciano, and it came out really good.” Most critics have agreed, giving it a warm welcome since its release on Dafnison—his own label—on October 2. Praise has focused on its mix of urbane harmonic passages and unexpected rhythmic shifts that betray Prieto’s pan-Latin perspective, and often his Cuban roots. The nine-track album features a lineup of varied skills and experience, including alto and soprano saxophonist Román Filiú, trumpeter Alex Norris, tenor saxophonist Peter Apfelbaum (on melodica and percussion as well), pianist Alex Brown, and bassist Johannes Weidenmueller. As one might surmise, the title offers comment on current circumstances.

“Transparency means social sincerity, having empathy. It also means that you can see through whatever someone is trying to explain to you—looking at things realistically. It’s hard times now, so this is an invocation from an artistic and human point of view, to bring awareness that transparency is the most important way.”

This was Prieto’s first Before & After, conducted on Zoom. Minutes before logging on to start the event, I had been walking in a West New York park dedicated in part to the Cuban poet and political martyr José Martí, with two flags flying dramatically in tandem, American and Cuban. I couldn’t resist snapping a photo of the scene to share. “That looks great. I like the message in that,” Prieto said. “Let’s make it happen—the full meaning of what those flags represent.”

Listen to a Spotify playlist featuring most of the songs in this Before & After:

1. Horacio “El Negro” Hernández
“Divertimento” (Horacio “El Negro” e Italuba Big Band Live, Bis Music). Ensemble featuring Eduardo Sandoval, trombone; Hernández, drums. Recorded in 2019.

BEFORE: Interesting sound, that’s for sure. It’s a Cuban. Hmmm. The song started in one direction and it went to a different direction here right now. It’s definitely Cuban music—it’s the sound of the horn, there’s something about it, the attack. It’s a little hard to describe but there’s something in the accent of how you play the music, not only the horns but everyone, the phrasing of it and the consciousness of rhythm. The bassist really nailed it down. It’s really good. There is a drummer and also a timbale player and a conga player, three of them. 

This part here, it reminds me of some of the Gonzalo [Rubalcaba] sound with the bass line. It’s open and spacey—really it reminds me of Felipe Cabrera playing the bass. I’m not saying those are the musicians, but it just reminds me a little bit of that sound. 

I like the sound, it just makes me feel like this is a bassist’s album, the bass is so focused. It sounds really together in terms of the synchronicity of the whole band. I hear the intention behind it, of the composition of it. I really liked it. 

AFTER: Oh wow! Yeah, that’s one by the Italuba Big Band. My brother—from Italy but originally of course from [Havana’s state-owned] EGREM Studios. Yeah, Horacio showed me that album when I went to Cuba, and some of the videos that he did when he did that recording. Great work. He was very inspirational to me. I actually got to see him a few times live when he played in Havana with Gonzalo, before he went to Italy. [Horacio] was living there at that time and I was at the [National] School [of Music]. I’m originally from Santa Clara, which is like 300 kilometers from Havana, so I didn’t spend my youth there. He was one of those brothers who really helped me out when I got to New York in terms of recommending me for gigs, and at the beginning he actually lent me one of his drums as well—really supportive to me. I used to go to his house in New Jersey. He’s a dear friend indeed.

I’ve read how Horacio went through a lot to get this album together. Tackling a big-band project today must be as much about the music as the financial creativity.
Oh, tell me about it. We’ve had to do that, doing an unbelievable work of fundraising behind my big band without having [record] label support or anything. I would say Eric, who’s my right hand behind everything I’m currently doing, did like 75 percent of the work—an amazing job in making the big-band project happen, and also now with this new album. 

2. Gil Evans
“Manteca” (New Bottle Old Wine, Pacific Jazz). Phil Bodner, flute; Cannonball Adderley, alto saxophone; Clyde Reasinger, Johnny Coles, Louis Mucci, trumpets; Julius Watkins, French horn; Frank Rehak, Joe Bennett, trombones; Tom Mitchell, bass trombone; John Barber, tuba; Chuck Wayne, guitar; Gil Evans, piano, arrangement; Paul Chambers, bass; Art Blakey, drums. Recorded in 1958.

BEFORE: Wow, that’s a bridge on top of the [sings bass line] da-dee-doh-da-doh-da-don, on top of it with a flute. “Manteca.” That’s beautiful. That’s a great idea because the bass line is going twice the speed. Nice arrangement. It sounds like a very old recording, old-fashioned. Here, it’s sticking to the swing part, it’s not going to the Latin part of the form. [Listens] All those fills that the drummer is doing, [sings] da-doo-da-doo-dah! See, right there—Art Blakey kind of feel. Very nice to have the flute in the melody there for the bass solo. I couldn’t guess who’s on this particular recording, for a time it sounded to me like Cannonball [on alto] but I’m not really sure. But I liked it very much. Now it’s the “After,” you have to tell me. I’m intrigued. 

AFTER: Oh, Gil Evans, yeah. Art Blakey and also Cannonball—okay, I’m happy. I mean, part of the beauty of an arranger, besides the talent obviously, is that witty, smart kind of imagination—doing an arrangement that brings a different dimension to the song. And Gil was great in doing that in so many ways. All the great arrangers do that.

3. Orquesta Akokán
“Otro Nivel” (Orquesta Akokán, Daptone). Harold Madrigal Frías, Santiago Ceballos Seijido, trumpets; Carlos “Afrokán” Alvarez Guerra, Heikel Fabian Triminio, Yoandy Argudin, trombones; César Lopez, alto saxophone; Jamil Schery, José Luis “Shew” Hernandez, tenor saxophones; Evaristo Denis, baritone saxophone; Michael Eckroth, piano, arrangement; Jacob Plasse, tres; Jorge Reyes, bass; Eduardo Lavoy Zaragoza Jr., bongos; Otto Santana Selis, congas, timbales; José “Pepito” Gómez, lead vocals; Eddie Venegas, Luis Soto, chorus. Recorded in 2016.

BEFORE: It’s interesting there. [Listens] You have the conjunto sound, which is the son sound, but within a big-band context. There’s a big band happening but the core of it is a small band because of that style of music—montuno in this case, which is one of the fundamental styles in Cuba. The sound of the saxes making it that mambo sound, kind of a Benny [Moré], Pérez Prado style of accompaniment on the saxophones. [Listens more] And the percussion is congas and the bongos—that’s it. Now the bongosero has picked up the bell. It’s not timbales or drums in this case—a dry sound, as I like to call it.

A little bit of what the singer did reminds me of Celia [Cruz]—the way he says the “R”s and everything. Groovy. It has that beautiful sound also—old times, you can hear everyone in the same room. Wow, that’s quite an ending—rah-rah! That’s nice.

AFTER: Oh, that’s Pepito Gómez. I’ve heard of him. Beautiful, groovy. Yeah, this is the band Orquesta Akokán. [Looks at photo of band] I know some of the musicians there. That’s César Lopez in the middle and the trumpet player that used to play with Gonzalo and the bari saxophone player also, Evaristo. And the arranger, the one with the glasses, we’ve met before. They’ve been playing around. Actually, they did a performance at North Sea when I was there last summer—2019, I mean.  

I can’t give you a clear answer about this band as a whole because I haven’t heard the full album. But this song is very much looking to the past. It has that sound that reminds you of the ’50s or the ’60s in New York. For a while I felt it must be a band from New York because there were so many great players at that time doing Cuban music. I believe there are a few bands that are doing that kind of work today, regenerating that sound. 

This band sounds fantastic, and I mean you can fake that sound like they’re recording in the same room, putting some ambience into the mix and giving it more gain. But I’m talking about that sense of really playing together and not the super-produced stuff.

4. Jane Bunnett and Maqueque
“Reencuentro” (On Firm Ground/Tierra Firme, Linus Entertainment). Bunnett, soprano saxophone; Dánae Olano, piano; Tailín Marrero, bass; Yissy Garcia, drums; MaryPaz Fernandez, percussion; Joanna Tendai Majoko, vocals. Recorded in 2019.

BEFORE: It sounds very Brazilian. It’s an interesting mix of styles because you have a bomba vibe on the bottom with some kind of movement of the melody in a more Brazilian way. That could be Jane—Jane Bunnett. I played with Jane for many years. What is the name of the band I’m thinking about? The drummer is definitely Cuban. If it’s Jane with that band, then that’s Yissy Garcia. Hypothetically speaking [laughs]. There’s something about the sound and how she’s embellishing right now and what she’s doing on the toms.

AFTER: Yeah, Maqueque, that’s what they call it. At the beginning it got a bit of a Brazilian vibe, but then I changed my mind after a minute because I started hearing all the elements and a more bomba style on the percussion. Then I heard the soprano. I worked with Jane about 20 years ago. When I was living in Cuba she brought me to Canada, and we did some touring there and we did a record together.

5. Irakere
“El Duke” (Misa Negra, Messidor). Carlos Averhoff, German Velazco, José Louis Cortes, saxophones; Jorge Varona, Juan Munguia, trumpets; Carlos Morales, guitar; Chucho Valdés, piano; Carlos Del Puerto, bass; Enrique Pla, drums; Jorge Alfonso, congas; Oscar Valdés, percussion. Recorded in 1986.

BEFORE: [Immediately] It sounds like Chucho. [Listens] Obviously, the Cuban piano. The voicings with the right hand. Sometimes he plays with the consciousness of big-band piano players. They have this very percussive sound, but also the voicing of the sounds sometimes when they do their big chorus, like a big band, the phrasing. And Chucho has that pianistic knowledge from big bands and stuff like that. I don’t know this album but I bet it’s a Chucho project with horns. I know this tune but I don’t remember the name. Miles used to play it a lot. 

AFTER: Oh, that’s Misa Negra, yeah. There are some songs in that album that really ring my bell. For some reason I didn’t associate it with that, but definitely that’s Irakere and their sound, having such great trumpet players in that band! You can hear it in those phrases, high up. It’s really hard to get them so clean and precise. That was part of the magic that we have in Irakere.

[Looks at image of album cover identifying keyboardist as “Jesus Valdés”] That’s his real name. I’m actually looking forward to doing some stuff with Chucho this coming year. We have something nailed down in Europe and we’ll see if it’s going to happen. I hope it does. Chucho has such a great feel on the piano, very demanding technically. It just sounds like his body—he’s a big guy. Even though he’s not banging on the piano, he gets an unbelievable sound just by pressing those keys and going for particular voicings.

6. Brian Lynch Big Band
“The Struggle Is in Your Name” (The Omni-American Book Club / My Journey Through Literature in Music, Hollistic MusicWorks). Lynch, trumpet, arrangement; Michael Dudley, Jean Caze, Jason Charos, Alec Aldred, trumpets; Donald Harrison, Tom Kelley, David Leon, alto saxophones; Gary Keller, Chris Thompson-Taylor, tenor saxophones; Mike Brignola, baritone saxophone; Dante Luciani, Carter Key, Steven Robinson, trombones; John Kricker, bass trombone; Alex Brown, piano; Lowell Ringel, bass; Boris Kozlov, electric bass; Kyle Swan, drums; Murph Aucamp, percussion. Recorded in 2019.

BEFORE: [Immediately] That’s Brian Lynch’s new album—the something American Book Club. I play on that. I’m not playing drums on this track. [Listens] I love that arrangement. I’ve told him I really like the beginning with the trombones, the texture.

Brian is a great person and a great friend and also a great musician. He actually played on my big-band record. I dedicated the first song on that album to the relationship between Brian and Eddie [Palmieri]. It came from when I played in Eddie’s jazz quartet with Brian and Boris Kozlov. I wrote that song back then and then I did an arrangement for the big band. Eddie is also a great inspiration. I was honored and happy to be part of Brian’s album—that won the Grammy last year as well [for Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album].

Brian’s had experience playing with almost all the Latin guys from back then, including with the Fania guys. I saw a video of him from maybe 30 years ago or more, playing with Hector Lavoe—I believe it was in Colombia or Peru, somewhere in Latin America. We are colleagues at the Frost School of Music at University of Miami. He’s had a lot to do with me being there—he had me as a special guest six or seven years ago and then I talked to the chair of the jazz department, John Daversa, who’s also a great trumpet player, and he said, “If you ever get interested in teaching here, let me know, we’ll be happy to have you.” The next year I made the move.

Ashley Kahn

Ashley Kahn is a Grammy-winning American music historian, journalist, producer, and professor. He teaches at New York University’s Clive Davis Institute for Recorded Music, and has written books on two legendary recordings—Kind of Blue by Miles Davis and A Love Supreme by John Coltrane—as well as one book on a legendary record label: The House That Trane Built: The Story of Impulse Records. He also co-authored the Carlos Santana autobiography The Universal Tone, and edited Rolling Stone: The Seventies, a 70-essay overview of that pivotal decade.