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Cuban Drummer Dafnis Prieto's Crisp Rhythms Are 'Good For Jazz'

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross. Drummer Dafnis Prieto moved to the U.S. from Cuba in 1999. Twelve years later, he was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship. Prieto leads a few bands, including an improvising trio with a singer. His new album is for a three-horned sextet. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says the drums are at the heart of Prieto's conception.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAFNIS PRIETO SONG, "TWO FOR ONE")

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Dafnis Prieto's sextet on "Two For One" from their new album, "Triangles And Circles." Prieto is in step with other jazz modernists who love looping lines and complex rhythms. His Cuban upbringing pointed him toward those before he ever got to the states. He'd been superimposing divergent beats since he took up the drums. In Cuba, any instrument can have a percussive function, and Prieto's compositions often sound like they're built from the drums up.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAFNIS PRIETO SONG, "THE EVIL IN YOU")

WHITEHEAD: Mike Rodriguez on trumpet and Manuel Valera on piano. Those crisp rhythms sound good on their own, but they're also functional, kicking the soloists from the rear. On the tune opening, Johannes Weidenmueller's electric bass locks in with the drums to bump the horns ahead. Peter Apfelbaum is on the tenor saxophone.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAFNIS PRIETO SONG, "OPENING")

WHITEHEAD: Felipe Lamoglia on alto sax at the end there. Dafnis Prieto's music is about more than intricate rhythm. He writes good melodies too, putting tuneful figures through inversions and variations, much like his drum patterns. On the title track to "Triangles And Circles," he'll pass a catchy lick from one horn to another or move it around the scale, reverse direction or stretch it out and snap it back.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAFNIS PRIETO SONG, "TRIANGLES AND CIRCLES")

WHITEHEAD: There's an old hipster's joke that got invoked when discussing world affairs. Yes, but is it good for jazz? The thaw between the U.S. and Cuba - this will be good for jazz. Historically, the music gets a jolt of Cuban rhythmic sophistication every so often, and it's ready for a new shot now that so much jazz is about permutation and metrical complexity. Dafnis Prieto's music sketches some modern possibilities when Afro-Cuban beats meet blues feeling and more spontaneous rhythmic variations. That pretty much describes how just jazz got started in the first place.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAFNIS PRIETO SONG, "BLAH BLAH")

BIANCULLI: Kevin Whitehead writes for Points of Departure and is the author of "Why Jazz?" He reviewed "Triangles And Circles," the new album by drummer Dafnis Prieto and his three-horned sextet. Coming up - zombie apocalypse. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.