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Overdue Ovation: Santi Debriano

The veteran bassist is Panama-born, Brooklyn-raised, and globally focused

Santi Debriano
Santi Debriano (photo: Samuel Henriques)

In his landmark 1983 book Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy, historian Robert Farris Thompson traces the aesthetic and spiritual influence that African traditions have had throughout the New World diaspora. Bassist Santi Debriano discovered the book while studying at Wesleyan University in the early 1990s, on the recommendation of frequent collaborator Jerry González.

“I was surprised because it wasn’t really a book about music,” Debriano recalled recently, on the phone from his home in Staten Island. “It was a book about art. But what it was trying to say was that African people kept some of their ideas about spirituality and imagery even when they came across in the Middle Passage and expressed them here in the Americas. Then those same ideas were handed down almost imperceptibly from generation to generation as the slaves became former slaves and moved from African religions to Christianity. I found it fascinating.”

Those connections, along with his graduate studies in ethnomusicology, would have a profound impact on the music Debriano, 65, made from that point forward. In 1997 he recorded the Latin-tinged Panamaniacs with saxophonist David Sánchez (the band was also founded with pianist Danilo Pérez), followed two years later by the acclaimed Circlechant, for which he enlisted Brazilian musicians like pianist Helio Alves and drummer Horacio “El Negro” Hernández. His latest release, Flash of the Spirit, pays explicit homage to Thompson’s book on a wide-ranging set of tunes that weave together the varied strands of the bassist’s own eclectic career.

The global music traditions that Debriano delved into during his years at Wesleyan emerge throughout the album, from the Middle Eastern-inflected melody of “Funky New Dorp” to the Brazilian folk sound of the lullaby-like “Toujours Petits,” to the songo rhythms that Cuban-born drummer Francisco Mela applies to Kenny Barron’s “Voyage.” But the album also features the muscular hard bop of opener “Awesome Blues,” an entrancing take on the Kenny Dorham ballad “La Mesha,” and an excursion into freer territory via Ornette Coleman’s “Humpty Dumpty.”

Flash of the Spirit thus coheres as something of a self-portrait of the artist, taking the pulse of his current musical thinking while glancing back at a past that has included formative stints with avant-garde explorers Archie Shepp, Sam Rivers, and Oliver Lake in parallel with longstanding connections to straight-ahead torchbearers like Kirk Lightsey and Louis Hayes and Latin jazz greats such as the González brothers.

“At Wesleyan I started looking at the whole arc of Black and Latino music and how it all related to me,” Debriano explained. “And I discovered a feeling of connectedness when I put certain rhythms into my music. My direction is towards jazz; I’m a jazz musician. But I think it gave my outlook a little bit more scope.”

Though he was born in Panama, Debriano moved with his parents to Brooklyn at the age of four and was raised a New Yorker. Though he only visited Panama once during his childhood, he grew up constantly reminded of what he’d left behind in his native land. “Once you leave Panama, you always hear about how you’re a Panamanian, how Panama is a beautiful place and that we’re lucky to be from such a beautiful country. So I grew up with a longing. And my one experience there confirmed all the fantasy that I had lived up to that point. It was a stark contrast to life in the projects, catching the bus in the cold of winter or taking the subway to Brooklyn Tech.”

Santi’s father, Alonso Wilson Debriano, was a pianist and composer in the mambo style back in Panama, but it was the music he played on the turntable, not the piano, that caught his son’s ear. “He always had the same records in rotation,” Debriano said. “Miles Davis’ ’Round [About] Midnight, Dave Brubeck’s Time Out, Ahmad Jamal’s Poinciana, Bill Evans, Nat King Cole—all that great piano stuff.”

The bass became Debriano’s instrument by default; he was among the taller boys in the Brooklyn arts program where he began studying music in fourth grade. (“I was one of the bigger ones when I was growing up, but I’m not one of the bigger ones anymore,” he laughed. “I stopped sometime before I got to six feet.”) By junior high he was playing Jimi Hendrix, Santana, and Motown covers on guitar at dances with a band variously called the Arbitrations or Pumoja. But he always had his sights firmly set on jazz. “I didn’t like playing bass in other forms of music. It was too repetitive for my taste, but I did it to pay bills.”

Debriano spent less than two years at Boston’s New England Conservatory, where he studied with Miroslav Vitous, before leaving school and heading out on the road with Archie Shepp. “I still consider Archie Shepp to be one of the greatest saxophone players ever,” Debriano said. “To be around a guy like that when I was a fledgling; I saw him experiment with the hardest tunes, just working and reworking them in his solos. We had some astounding nights. It was also interesting from a social standpoint, to travel the world with this guy who was so well recognized throughout Europe but hardly known at all [in the States]. I had never been around a Black man of such important stature.”

Upon moving to Paris with his first wife, Debriano hooked up with Sam Rivers and spent three years playing in the adventurous saxophonist’s trio, a plunge into freeform experimentation that his own music still detours into on occasion. “Sam Rivers took it out, boy,” Debriano said with a chuckle. “But we had a ball. We’d perform places where people knew Sam and adored him. The Wall was still up in Germany, and you could feel that the East Germans were using Sam’s music as a mode of expression for their frustration and their aspirations. Something about his music helped them to dream about a better world, and they adored him for that.”

Debriano returned to New York in 1985 and released his leader debut, Obeah, two years later. He felt a disconnect, though, between his roots in Panama and the diverse jazz styles he was exploring, leading him to take up ethnomusicology at Wesleyan. “My parents are Black Panamanians, so my people don’t have the connection with the southern part of the United States that Black Americans have. That started me thinking, as I became a musician myself, about how I relate to these rhythms.”

Flash of the Spirit is Debriano’s most fully realized answer to that question to date—realized in part by surrounding himself with musicians who share his expansive tastes. The band on the album includes flutist Andrea Brachfeld, saxophonist Justin Robinson, Brazilian percussionist Valtinho Anastacio, drummer Tommy Campbell, and pianist Bill O’Connell, whose career has long balanced multifarious influences.

“I always tell Santi we should have met 30 years ago,” said O’Connell, who first crossed paths with the bassist less than a decade ago at a jam session on Long Island. “Once fate put us together we immediately hit it off. We’re both connected in a love of Latin music, pure straight-ahead jazz, and pushing the envelope in the jazz realm as well. There’s a lot of freedom in what we do together, in terms of where the music can go depending upon how we feel.”

Debriano continues to delight in bringing people together to explore the conjunction of different sounds and styles, something he’s been doing of late at his home on Staten Island. This was the unexpected outcome of a tragic disaster, as the bassist’s home was ravaged by Hurricane Sandy in 2012. With the help of city funding, the ranch house was raised to protect against future flooding, which gave Debriano and his wife a new space just perfect for hosting jam sessions, at least until the COVID pandemic put a temporary stop to the festivities.

“We tried to turn a catastrophe into something pleasant for us,” Debriano said. Surely once this current round of global catastrophe finally passes, he’ll be eager to reconvene the Flash of the Spirit band and journey again through the far-flung traditions that so vividly shape his venturesome music.

RECOMMENDED LISTENING

Archie Shepp: Soul Song (Enja, 1982)
Kirk Lightsey Quintet Featuring Marcus Belgrave: Kirk ‘n Marcus (Criss Cross, 1987)
Obeah (Freelance, 1987)
Panamaniacs (Evidence, 1997)
Circlechant (HighNote, 1999)
Flash of the Spirit (Truth Revolution, 2021)

Shaun Brady

Shaun Brady is a Philadelphia-based journalist who covers jazz along with an eclectic array of arts, culture, and travel. Brady contributes regularly to the Philadelphia Inquirer and JazzTimes and Jazziz magazines, with subjects ranging from legendary artists to underground experimentalists. His byline has appeared in DownBeat, Metro, NPR Music, and The A.V. Club, among other outlets. He studied filmmaking at Columbia College Chicago and continues to spend too much time in the dark.