When two of the most acclaimed modern explorers of Cuban music combine their prodigious talents on the music they love, musical magic happens. That is demonstrated in truly enchanting fashion on Cuban Rhapsody, the duet recording by Hilario Duran and Jane Bunnett. They are both virtuoso players, arrangers, composers, and bandleaders in their own right, and they have the Grammy nominations and Juno Awards to prove it. Their shared musical history and close personal friendship now spans 21 years, and this empathy is at the heart of Cuban Rhapsody.
The musical excellence of this album will come as no surprise, though its sound will turn some heads. Both Duran and Bunnett are famed for their innovative take on contemporary Latin jazz and Cuban styles. In fact, in 2002 Bunnett received the prestigious Smithsonian Institute Award, "for contributions and dedication to the development of Latin jazz." On Cuban Rhapsody, she and Duran go back to the roots. The album is best described as an exploration of Cuban classical music, and the results are both educational and accessible. This is a style little known in North America and Europe, though it is deeply appreciated in Cuba and Latin America. It is brought to vivid life here, thanks to Hilario's ever-fluent and dazzlingly accomplished piano playing and Jane's melodic contributions on soprano saxophone and flute.
The tunes here range in age from the mid 19th century through to the 1940s, '50s and '60s. These richly romantic compositions are treated with love and respect by these two virtuosos, but they are not afraid to occasionally add a fresh coat of paint to the original arrangements. They are jazz players, after all, so improvisation is part of their musical DNA. "Some of our versions are very close to the original rendition, but we are taking some liberties on others," explains Jane. "We'll perhaps inject a solo section where there wasn't any before." The one original tune here is Hilario's "New Danzon," described by Bunnett as "a dance song done in the style of traditional danzon but with a very modern harmony. It is very adventurous and rhythmically demanding."
The material here moves seamlessly from the subtle elegance of "Danza Lucumi' to the jaunty "Quirino Con Su Tres" and "Sherezada," melodies as warm and breezy as a stroll on Havana's waterfront. A centrepiece of the album is the "Contradanzas," a medley of five tunes written in the contradanza form. Three were penned by Manuel Saumell, the 19th century composer described as the father of the contradanza, habanera, danzon, guajira, and clave forms and a true pioneer in integrating European classical music with Cuban folkloric styles.
Tunes by such noted 20th century Cuban composers as Frank Emilio Flynn, Ernesto Lecuona, Miguel Matamoros, Alberto Valdes, Manuel Corona, and Emilio Grenet are also reprised here. Hilario notes that "when they composed this music, there was a lot of movement between Havana and New Orleans, Haiti, Mexico, and Spain. European classical music was blended with African, Cuban and early jazz styles."
Hilario Duran is literally well-schooled in these compositions and Cuban classical music in general. Cuba has long been known for having one of the best music education systems in the world, and it is one in which Hilario grew up. Returning to the music of his youth gave him great pleasure. "I began studying classical music at a young age, before becoming more involved in investigating jazz and other musical styles. Now I am coming back to my roots. This is music I really love to play. It reminds me of my younger days." The joy Hilario takes in playing this music is clearly audible on Cuban Rhapsody.
Jane Bunnett's passionate love affair with all forms of Cuban music is also a long-standing one, and it has been a crucial element in her creative career. A frequent visitor to Cuba, she explains that "I was familiar with a lot of this music. You hear it in the schools, on the radio, and often in the cafes. Our Cuban Piano Masters album back in 1996 was the start of my exploration of Cuban classical music."
The classical music rooted pieces on Cuban Rhapsody can perhaps be viewed as the Cuban equivalent of the Great American Songbook. They have proved to be both timeless and still relevant, as this album clearly confirms. "It is full of passion, melody, and rhythm, and that's the essence of Cuban music," observes the album's producer, Peter Cardinali.
In recent years, Hilario and Jane have frequently performed as a duo, exploring this style in the process. The idea of making a record was quickly endorsed by ace Toronto producer/record label head Cardinali, and it is being released on his highly-respected label, ALMA Records. The recording took place at Toronto studio The Drive Shed, with award-winning engineer John 'Beetle" Bailey at the console alongside Cardinali.
This marks the first time Bunnett has worked on a full album with any producer other than her husband and bandmate Larry Cramer, and she thoroughly enjoyed the experience. "It was great working with Peter. He has exceptional ears, and he's excellent in the studio." Cardinali has now produced four albums for Hilario, and he notes that "everyone was in sync for the recording."
Bunnett and Duran each has extensive experience of performing and recording with large ensembles (Hilario's 20-piece Latin Jazz Big Band has earned a Juno Award, Grammy nomination and international acclaim), but both musicians love the duo setting. "I like every format we do, but I like the duo because of the space and the simplicity. You can really focus on the sound, and the themes are so beautiful," explains Jane. Hilario adds "I love the freedom of just two people. It is also very challenging and difficult at some points, as we have to fill up this spectrum of sound and play the music right." Consider this a challenge well met.
The close musical and personal bonds between Duran and Bunnett now stretch back over two decades. In 1990, Jane and Larry Cramer were in Havana to record her ground-breaking and Juno Award-winning album, Spirits Of Havana. Bunnett picks up the story, recalling that "our great friend Guillermo Barreto acted as our producer on the Cuban side. We told him we needed a piano player who had a real sense of jazz but also a respect and love for the folkloric music of Cuba. He said 'I know exactly who you want,' and he introduced us to Hilario. He could barely speak any English and was really shy, but he was great. We were immediately on the same page musically." Duran terms this meeting "destiny. It changed my life." He's not exaggerating, for Bunnett and Cramer later sponsored Hilario and his family as immigrants to Canada, the country they've called home since 1998. Hilario frequently performed in Jane's Spirits Of Havana ensemble, and he became a crucial accompanist for Bunnett on such albums as Rendezvous Brazil-Cuba, Chamalongo, and Ritmo + Soul. In turn, Bunnett has appeared on several Hilario Duran albums including Killer Tumbao.
Their musical marriage now takes radiant shape on Cuban Rhapsody ,and Hilario and Jane are happily committed to live performance of this material in Canada, the US and beyond in the months ahead.