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Something Special

[whitespace] Cubanismo
Jamming: Jesus Alemany leads Cubanismo into new rhythmic frontiers.

Cubanismo mixes jazz instrumentation and African and Cuban folk forms

By Nicky Baxter

THE EXPRESSION cubanismo designates something special, something not common, in Latin American. Cubanismo, the band, is indeed something very special. The unit delivers a riveting admixture of jazz instrumentation and classic African/Cuban folk forms, most notably charanga, son and provincial dance music. Cubanismo brings these forms together in a way that is refreshingly devoid of "Latin jazz" clichés; the music practically demands a physical response.

The notion of Cuban jazz has been around for half a century. The history of Dizzy Gillespie and Chano Pozo and Machito is an integral part of the fabric of jazz. In recent years, the bond has been strengthened considerably with the likes of bassist Israel Lopez and pianist Chucho Valdez making their way to the U.S. Following in those artists' footsteps, Cubanismo has become perhaps the most popular ensemble to hit these shores in recent years.

Bandleader Jesus Alemany is one of the island's most promising new voices, having studied at Havana's famed Conservatoire Guillermo Tomas. While in his teens, he hooked up with the leading dance band Sierra Maestra, playing a major role as a primary soloist.

The first version of the group included Cuban megastars percussionist Tata Guines, bassist Carlos de Puerto Jr. and flutist Orlando Valle. The self-titled debut is a torrid affair that drew rave critical reviews both here and abroad upon its release. After a wildly successful tour of the U.S., Alemany and company set out to consolidate Cubanismo's growing status as the band to see.

That was accomplished with the release of Cubanismo's latest, Reincarnacion, an album that makes manifest Alemany's fealty to Cuba's descarga (jam session) tradition.

Co-produced and arranged by Alemany, the album is steeped in Cuban musical history, though it never gets bogged down in creaky by-the-numbers nostalgia. From start to finish, the 14-piece orchestra plays with a rare combination of blistering passion and mathematical precision. The album showcases the peerless virtuosity of pianist Ignacio Herrera, tres player Pancho Amat and flutist Orlando Valle, among others.

Reincarnacion hits the tracks running with "El Platanal de Bartolo." Rolo Martinez handles vocal chores, braying with the insouciance befitting this arresting tune. Alemany's wide-open, bright trumpet slides in and out of solo mode, answered by a surging brass section and nifty percussion work.

Dedicated to Alemany's current home base in London, "Mambo UK" is a leisurely gaited number offering a spirited vocal chorus and a pungent brass arrangement. Herrera's piano solo is simple but effective. Heavily percussive, he reiterates the tune's rhythmic pulse while simultaneously peeling off sprinting right-handed asides.

"Jamming in Nijmegen" and the session-ending "En Las Delicias" are both descargas, offering ample opportunity for band members to stretch out, which they do magnificently. The former is an effusive quick-tempoed number that features a funky alto sax solo and nimble piano (again courtesy Herrera).

Both tunes emphasize the fact that more than anything, Cubanismo is about enticing bodies onto the dance floor, something the ensemble seems able to do without breaking a sweat. Indeed, the last time the group performed in the south bay, Cubanismo made so many converts, fans demanded multiple encores. Needless to say, they got what they wanted. And more. Joining Cubanismo in this special one-night performance are theater troupe Charanga Nueve and Grito Serpentino.

Cubanismo performs Thursday (July 22) at 8pm at the Usual, 400 S. First St., San Jose. Tickets are $22adv/$25dr. (408/535-0330).

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From the July 22-28, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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