(an alternate version of this story appears in The Gainesville Sun)
Note: Ninety Miles plays April 24 in Hampton, VA, April 26 in College Park, MD, and April 27 in Gainesville, FL
Typically, a jazz musician will take a standard tune or an original composition, play the form and then solo over the piece’s chord changes. Each time through, there can be a variation to the arrangement, and slight or major rhythmic redesigns. And, ideally, each performance of a song will feature entirely different lines and passages during the solo section.
But sometimes an entire recording project can amount to an act of improvisation.
That’s how it felt to Stefon Harris, the acclaimed New York vibraphonist and classically trained percussionist who was tapped in 2010 to put together the Ninety Miles band with Puerto Rican-born saxophonist David Sanchez and trumpeter Christian Scott, a New Orleans native.
The CD, “Ninety Miles,” named for the distance between Miami and Havana, was suggested by producers at Concord, the label home to all three musicians. The success of the project depended on their ability to take a general concept and improvise on it – go to Cuba, connect with Cuban musicians, see what happens.
“Having an idea come from someone else sometimes challenges you in ways you can’t imagine for yourself,” Harris said by telephone. “I hadn’t really had a chance to play with them. I had never been to Cuba before, and I was excited to have that type of artistic and musical exposure. But there was a great deal of unpredictability even in the process of making the record.”
The challenges included gathering the documents required to travel to Cuba, with whom the United States has had a notoriously strained relationship for decades, largely in response to the Caribbean country’s repressive policies toward its citizens.
“The day before going, we weren’t even sure we were going to go,” Harris said. “When we got down there I didn’t even have a vibraphone. The unpredictability extended to not knowing what we were going to do with the band. I didn’t know the Cuban musicians, and had never seen them play. So I went on Youtube and listened to a couple of clips, then I chose some players and composed music that I thought would be open and flexible. It all worked to create an atmosphere of great creativity.”
The two-disc CD was released in 2011 on the Concord Picante label, which is largely focused on Latin jazz recordings. But the music, including compositions by musicians from both countries, doesn’t strictly fit that classification: elements of hard bop are intermingled with blues, funk-driven grooves and, of course, Montuno patterns and a variety of Latin percussion.
The group has morphed somewhat since 2010, with Scott last year replaced by Grammy-winning trumpeter Nicholas Payton, coincidentally also raised in New Orleans. The septet, whose performance at last summer’s Montreal Jazz Festival was a highlight of my trip to that fest, includes an international rhythm section – pianist Edward Simon was born in Venezuela, bassist Ricardo Rodriguez and drummer Henry Cole both hail from Puerto Rico, and percussionist Mauricio Herrera is a native of Cuba.
A live disc, “Live at Cubadisco,” recorded at a concert in Havana shortly after the original sessions, was released last year, and a documentary on the project year was picked up for distribution by BBC Worldwide.
The band’s recordings, Harris said, inevitably may be seen by some as a political statement.
But he views Ninety Miles as strictly a cross-cultural musical project, and hopes to take the concept – musical collaboration in the face of political and cultural barriers – to other locales.
“I’m hoping that we’re sonically demonstrating the benefits of empathy and we’re showing that there’s not much of a divide (between people),” he said. “We all know love, we all know fear, we all know greed, we all know compassion. I don’t play music just because it’s fun and it feels good. Music is ultimately about far more than notes and tones.”