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NewCityNet Living The Visa Loca

From Toronto to Havana

By John MacCalkies

JULY 26, 1999:  Being a bubbly but laid-back Canadian with an easygoing demeanor has helped saxophonist/flautist Jane Bunnett remain sane through all the immigration entanglements that have fraught the latest edition of her Afro-Cuban group Spirits of Havana.

Their gig earlier this week at Yoshi's in Oakland was their first in a month with the original personnel, thanks to the usual sequence of visa snafus. Prior to that, they played in Pori, Finland, but minus their usual drummer. When they hit Newark airport, trumpeter Larry Cramer (Bunnett's husband) was sent back to Toronto to renew his visa. She managed an interview only after a forty-eight-hour commute from Europe, during which time the band was held by U.S. Immigration.

Bunnett retains her sense of humor and reports she was quite happy to wait and see things done properly, since more often than not complete confusion results from erratic wielding of the red tape. After all, she spent three years piecing together her breakthrough "Spirits of Havana" record, which was released in 1991 when relations with Cuba were a good deal hairier.

Bunnett first voyaged to the island in 1984 with Cramer and was utterly smitten by the indigenous music and vitality. She began to make regular trips, cementing relationships with performers in the Santo Suarez neighborhood of Havana, including the late husband-and-wife team of singer Merceditas Valdes and timbalero Guillermo Barreto, who feature prominently on her debut CD, alongside emerging talent Gonzalo Rubalcaba and veteran pianist Frank Emilio.

Bunnett's explorations melding American style jazz with traditional Cuban music were not unheralded: Charlie Parker worked with Machito, Dizzy Gillespie with Chano Pozo, Stan Kenton's "Cuban Fire" in the fifties. But she presaged the recent craze prompted by the efficient dissemination of Ry Cooder's "Buena Vista Social Club" project. In fact Cooder was working on his future Grammy winner upstairs at Havana's legendary Egrem studios just as Jane was recording her second Blue Note CD, "Chamolongo," on the first floor.

But Bunnett holds no animosity toward those who have also sought to culturally cash in by collaborating with Cuban musicians, many of whom are Cuban legends, but unknown beyond the island.

"Though it hurts," she says "that we hadn't the clout to do more for Merceditas Valdes before she died."

Guitarist Compay Segundo and singer Ibrahim Ferrer, now major stars since the advent of Wim Wenders' "Buena Vista" documentary, are just the tip of a long Havana cigar's worth of talent according to Bunnett. "Cuban music has a history, as rich and longer than American jazz, and there exists a multiplicity of styles, many religious and folkloric. It's not just about salsa and mambo."

Though Bunnett takes star billing on her Blue Note projects, she is often not at the epicenter of the music. As with her "Cuban Piano Masters" record, she bows out on a couple of tracks to showcase Frank Emilio and Jose Maria Vitier. What's more, Bunnett is a more sympathetic integrator of Cuban styles in her music than several - more high profile - U.S. jazzmen. Roy Hargrove's "Crisol" project only went so far in fusing the two styles, and Steve Coleman's pretentious "The Sign and The Seal" failed in trying to meld traditional forms with black rap and M-Base, discounting the emotional component which stokes virtuosity in Cuban music. It is evident that Bunnett has invested extra time getting acquainted with her collaborators (there is an official endorsement on her first CD: "The artists, producers and crew exclusively drink El Ron de Cuba").

"We would spend several weeks hanging out at Ernesto (Gatell)'s house shaping the music through the long mornings and afternoons as neighbors would drop in from the street. Quite the barrio adventure."

Bunnett's own instrumental style was spawned from an enthusiasm for Charles Mingus, Roland Kirk and Thelonious Monk. She began as a pianist until tendonitis turned her toward wind instruments, and is currently learning to play the Chinese trumpet. She studied with Steve Lacy in Paris, and her approach to the soprano is reminiscent of Lacy's rather blunt, unhurried delivery. Another important influence was pianist Don Pullen, who performed with her in Havana and with whom she has recorded.

Bunnett's flute playing is feisty and lithe, and she pegs out her territory admirably against intense Afro-Cuban percussion on a demanding instrument integral to the Latin sound. "Havana Jane," as she has been occasionally - not so affectionately - dubbed, is a doughty spirit with an unshakable sense of direction. She and Kramer already have another CD slated for August for the current group, plus a kalimba player from Cameroon and a gospel/rap singer from New York, Dean Bowman. A documentary will be filmed in the fall of a trip they intend to take to the Camaguey province in central Cuba, where there is an incredible conservatory of music. The couple also intend to more thoroughly investigate Santiago, with the idea of mixing the son tradition with the conga.

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