Latin jazz is the sugar in your coffee, the honey in your tea. With roots in the Carribean, and in the barrios of New York, Miami and elsewhere, the music warms the soul but also tickles the ear and facilitates the flow of blood to parts of the subconscious where sensuality and desire reside. Listening to Latin jazz is both a spiritual and metaphysical experience.
To many American jazz musicians, especially practitioners of Latin jazz, the name of Jorge Chicoy has been known for some time. In the 1980s, Chicoy played with the Havana-based band of trumpeter Arturo Sandoval. Later, from 1998 to 2004, Chicoy served a stint with Irakere, arguably the greatest Afro-Cuban group to ever come out of Cuba. Chicoy, born in Havana in 1955, played with the band after its legendary saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera first blazed a trail by leaving Cuba for the United States. As a guitar player, Chicoy’s talents were most apparent to those with a discerning ear. The guitar is not normally a lead instrument in Afro-Cuban music, so Chicoy’s gift was rarely showcased to the extent of a pianist, horn player or percussionist. Also, due to the epic, ongoing diplomatic standoff between Cuba and the U.S., Chicoy rarely had the opportunity to play in this country. In Cuba and other places around the world where Irakere had played, he was known as a brilliant jazz accompanist and composer. His reputation, even among Latin jazz musicians who had not yet seen him play, was prodigious, but among the general public in the U.S. he was virtually unknown. In 2016, Chicoy made the decision to permanently reside in the U.S. It was an existential decision more than a musical one. He did not have a manager in the U.S., or a network of contacts that might lead to regular gigs or a recording contract. His playing languished, somewhat, until he ran into an old friend, Stuart Deutsch, a sound engineer for movies. They had first met years earlier in Havana. Stu asked Chicoy what he was doing musically. Chicoy said, ‘Not much.’ And so began the journey to rectify that fact, leading, ultimately, to the creation of this CD.
A key component in the reemergence of Jorge Chicoy as a bold, virtuoso musical presence here in the U.S. has been the piano player Mike Eckroth. Born and raised in Phoenix, Arizona – far from Cuba – Eckroth nonetheless had become an illustrious student and practitioner of Afro-Cuban music. On trips to Cuba, he absorbed the roots of son montuno, guaguanco and other rhythmic components of the music, combining it with his own harmonic skills, which he honed while earning a PhD in Jazz performance at New York University (his dissertation was titled, Early Cuban Piano Improvisation: 1937-1949).
For Eckroth, being a non-Latino drawn to the wondrous rhythms of Latin jazz was not as unusual as it might sound. Vibraphonist and composer Cal Tjader, one of the most legendary figures in Latin jazz history, was also a non-Latino born and raised far from Havana, in his case in St. Louis. The truth is, Latin jazz is, and always has been, a universal music. Its roots may be in Africa, Cuba, and Latin America, but when combined with Jazz, which was born in New Orleans, the music takes on a life of its own. Latin jazz is not only a popular musical form with listeners all around the globe, but it is now a musical idiom played and composed by all kinds of musicians. What is required is a deep awareness of certain rhythm patterns that come out of the Afro-Cuban tradition, and an understanding of jazz, which requires musical inventiveness and a taste for improvisation. For someone like Jorge Chicoy, this music comes naturally; it is in his blood. He is a Cuban legend, as vital on the guitar as Chucho Valdez on piano or the great Cachao on bass. Chicoy’s style is both modern and classic, but most of all, it is dazzling.
The tunes on this CD were recorded over two days in spring and summer of 2017. Most of these musicians did not know each other before these recording dates. They responded out of a desire to play with Chicoy and brought to the recording studio an exceptional level of professionalism as students, teachers and session musicians going back decades. Alejandro García, the drummer, was born in Chile but raised in Cuba. He studied classical and contemporary Afro-Cuban and jazz percussion at Cuba’s Ignacio Cervantes School of Music, under the direction of Irakere’s drummer Enrique Plá. Bassists Harvie S (tracks 1-4) and Edward Perez (tracks 5-8) both brought decades of experience, Harvie S as a sideman with some of the biggest names in jazz, including John Scofield, Kenny Barron, Michael Brecker, and David Sanborn. Edward Perez, as well as being an accomplished bassist and leader of an 18-piece orchestra known as the Terraza Big Band, is a composer whose works have been performed by the likes of Yo-Yo Ma and Latin jazz pioneer Ignacio Berroa. Keisel Jiménez was born in Camagüey and earned his degree in classical percussion at the Institute of Superior Art (ISA) in Cuba. Since arriving in the U.S., he has been playing and touring with Isaac Delgado, one of the founders of the seminal Cuban salsa band NG La Banda.
Gathering these musicians together was like summoning the talents of a handful of NBA All-Stars. Even if they had never before been on the court together as a unit, a lifetime of professional skill and instinct came into play. Jazz, like basketball, is all about the flow. Improvisation is encouraged, but within a set structure. When the bass player zigs, the pianist zags, with melodic precision. The drummer and percussionist lay it all down, providing the foundation for an offense that is perpetually in motion. From the outside perimeter, the guitarist – in this case Chicoy – steps up and hits a three-point shot. Throughout the game-slash-recording session, this pattern is repeated again and again.
In Havana, there is no subway. The connecting of the human spirit, in both body and soul, cannot be facilitated solely through brick and mortar, or industrial construction. It takes music to connect people, to bring the world together. Music is the underground railroad that makes it all possible. And in the case of this remarkable recording, the express train is powered by Latin jazz.
– T.J. English, New York Times best-selling author
(Havana Subway is available for download on itunes and other streaming platforms. The CD can be purchased through Dangerous Rhythms Records)