Chris Washburne continues to push the conventions and limits of Latin jazz
The PBS documentary series Latin Music USA, which was shown locally on two successive Mondays in October, and the White House “Fiesta Latina,” held Oct. 14 and broadcast on PBS the following night, belatedly reminded us—as they were meant to—that Hispanic Heritage Month had come and gone. This celebration of the culture of Americans from Spanish-speaking backgrounds—the largest and fastest growing ethnic group in the United States—is commonly overlooked, though Lyndon Johnson initiated it as a week-long affair in 1968 and Congress expanded it to a month in 1988.
One problem may be the month starts in mid-September, because Sept. 15 is independence day for Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua, Mexico’s independence day is Sept. 16 and Chile’s is Sept. 18. Non-Hispanic Americans might not have those dates as firmly in mind as July 4 or 9/11, but we all should realize how vital the Latin tinge (as Jelly Roll Morton called Hispanic influence) is to our best vernacular music. That’ s especially true in New York City. Part 1 of Latin Music USA vividly demonstrated how Maurio Bauza and Dizzy Gillespie popularized Latin jazz in the late 1940s; Machito’s Afro-Cubans, Tito Rodriguez and Tito Puente’s orchestras integrated social dancing at the Palladium Ballroom in the ’50s; and Joe Cuba, Joe Bataan, Pete Rodriguez and Willie Colon, among others, funkified the
old-school style in the ’60s to come up with the boogaloo. In the ’70s, an honor roll of virtuosic bandleaders, singers and instrumentalists convened under the flag of Fania Records to reach musical peaks and rewarded dancers and listeners alike, designating their pan-Latin American triumph Salsa.
Of the stars of that era, composer-bandleader-pianist Eddie Palmieri is the most active survivor. He’ s scheduled to perform at the Blue Note Dec. 9 through 13 to mark his 73rd birthday, and if the dazzling performance his La Perfecta II ensemble delivered at Jazz at Lincoln Center last January is typical of his sets now, that stand shouldn’t be missed. Like his colleagues Larry Harlow (who plays New York infrequently, but was an artist-in-residence at Ramapo College in October) and Johnny Pacheco, el maestro of the Fania All-Stars (whose concert at the United Palace Theater Nov. 14 is billed as “Su Historia & Su Música”), Palmieri has a genius for stacking fiery horns over hyperkinetic rhythms from piano and percussion for waves of sound that compel a listener’s feet, hips, ears, mind and spirit.
Developments in Latin music, however, don’t end with those veterans, as trombonist and Columbia University professor Chris Washburne, one of the talking heads in Latin Music USA, makes clear in his book Sounding Salsa and even better with his SYOTOS band. That septet has held a Sunday night gig at Smoke, for the past 10 years that follows a long, mid-week stint at the Nuyorican Poets Café in the East Village. The group has also released four albums of Latin jazz that ingeniously retains danceability while pushing the genre’s conventions of composition and virtuosic improvisation.
Washburne is not alone in mamboing down that ambitious line; drummer Bobby Sanabria, also interviewed in Latin Music USA (which can be viewed in its entirety online at www.pbs.org/wgbh/latinmusicusa) and pianist Arturo O’Farrill, who leads the Chico O’ Farrill Afro Cuban Jazz Orchestra on Sunday nights at Birdland, also pursue a creative aesthetic. Their efforts are in contrast to the watered down, commercial salsa romántica, which Washburne identifies as having emerged in the 1990s. At that time, young Latinos such as La India and Marc Anthony took the assimilationist path forged by Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine, singing with Hispanic inflections but replacing much of Afro-Caribbean music’ s dynamic rhythms with squarer beats suitable to mainstream pop.
Salsa romántica, which favors mellifluous ballads sung by pretty people in preference to cuttingly synchronized instrumental work, may have made Latin music safe for crossover radio airplay, but it downplays the tension between tradition and innovation that’s stoked the taste for Latin music in America ever since John Philip Sousa (of Spanish, Portuguese and Bavarian ancestry) adapted Cuban themes to military marches back in the 1890s. Salsa dura—hard salsa—is more attractive to fans of jazz and other exploratory urban musics than melodramatic come-ons that seem to recapitulate the plots of telenovelas.
Is it just so to me? Nah. Washburne was diagnosed with nerve cancer in the early ’90s, and underwent lip surgery that doctors predicted he had only a 50-50 chance of surviving, with no possibility he’d ever play trombone again. They were wrong: Today he plays superbly. And his ensemble’s name, an acronym for “See you on the other side,” reflects the bravado that distinguishes Latin music in the U.S.A. It’s an assertion that tradition can embrace new circumstances without sacrificing its cojones.