[JPL] A Jazz Drummer Who Says Cuba, Sí; Salsa, No

r durfee rdurfee2003 at yahoo.com
Tue Sep 11 19:26:10 EDT 2007

September 8, 2007
Music Review | Francisco Mela
A Jazz Drummer Who Says Cuba, Sí; Salsa, No 
Since Cuban musicians, and drummers in particular,
have played such a strong and complicated role in
jazz’s history, the Cuban drummer Francisco Mela’s new
quintet seems almost unfairly significant from the

Truthfully, it’s still undercooked. It would need a
few months of touring to sound more fluid than it did
on Wednesday night at the Blue Note, and who knows
whether that’s possible? (He’s also the drummer in Joe
Lovano’s quartet, and the foreseeable future looks

Mr. Mela is in his late 30s but new to American
audiences. He came here in 1997 to study at Berklee
and released his first album, “Melao,” only last year.
His new band is very current, very New York, and it
doesn’t sound like Latin jazz. “I am from Cuba, yes,”
Mr. Mela explained to the audience before the band
played a note. “But this is not salsa.”

These songs had new ideas about form. It was never
just theme-solos-theme, and not all five musicians
contributed to each tune. Various players left the
stage for stretches and then reappeared when needed. 

Recurring melodies made each tune cohere, but they
felt episodic. A short strict-time section would give
way to a short rubato section, and solos were often
short passageways to the next written section, instead
of events in themselves. 

The constant elements were Mr. Mela and the bassist
Larry Grenadier; the variables were the pianist Jason
Moran, the guitarist Lionel Loueke, and the tenor
saxophonist Mark Turner. And Mr. Mela let them take
turns in placing their stamp on the music. The grooves
and vamps were always strong, but he didn’t bind his
musicians in a particular sound; he let them be who
they are.

Each of them got a chance to play entire songs as part
of a trio, accompanied only by bass and drums. Mr.
Moran made his solos dense with his own harmony and
phrasing, creating groundswells of tension that Mr.
Mela quickly responded to. 

The same went for Mr. Turner, playing dry and keening
phrases in the high registers, and Mr. Loueke,
strumming percussively and running his acoustic guitar
through a wah-wah pedal. For brief passages, with all
of them, it seemed that we could have been listening
to their own bands. 

Mr. Mela sang too. In the middle of the set he played
“Pequeña Serenata Diurna,” a well-known Cuban folk
song from the early ’70s by Silvio Rodriguez, whose
Spanish lyrics begin “I live in a free country” and
ends with “I am a happy man/and I want the dead to
pardon me for my day of happiness.” 

The song was arranged frugally for a trio, with Mr.
Loueke and Mr. Grenadier, and when Mr. Mela sang each
verse, in a rough voice, he made the wise decision not
to play the drums at all. He let a folk song be a folk


Roy Durfee
P.O. Box 40219
Albuquerque, New Mexico 87196-0219
rdurfee2003 at yahoo.com

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