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Pedrito Martinez Redefines the “Restaurant Gig”

The Cuban percussionist-vocalist melds diverse influences

Pedrito Martinez

When Pedrito Martinez says he first met Wynton Marsalis the time the trumpeter “came by my house,” the percussionist and vocalist doesn’t mean the place where he hangs his hat. He’s referring to Guantanamera, the Cuban restaurant in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen where the Pedrito Martinez Group holds forth three nights a week. Marsalis isn’t the only fellow musician who’s stopped by: Guitarist John Scofield often sits in, and drummer Steve Gadd was so impressed with Martinez and his crew-pianist and vocalist Ariacne Trujillo, bassist and background vocalist Alvaro Benavides and second percussionist/background vocalist Jhair Sala-that he offered to co-produce the band’s self-titled debut album on Motéma Music.

Those three high-profile fans are among the contributing guests on the record, a progressive variation on Afro-Cuban and Latin traditions that incorporates elements of rock, pop, blues and R&B. Among the album’s 10 tracks are Martinez originals, Cuban standards and refreshingly original arrangements of the Jackson Five ballad “I’ll Be There” and “Travelling Riverside Blues,” written by blues icon Robert Johnson and later updated by Led Zeppelin. “That’s just New York,” says Martinez, who left Cuba in 1998 while touring with Canadian saxophonist Jane Bunnett as part of her Spirits of Havana outfit. “New York is a very cosmopolitan city and you have all the best kinds of music. So it’s easy for me to do that. I’m very curious-I love to mix things-but I never forget the roots, where I came from.”

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