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Photo courtesy of the artist.

Already a MacArthur “Genius Grant”-winner and a multiple Grammy-nominee, drummer and composer Dafnis Prieto is still not done pushing his art in new directions. This summer, Prieto will head to the studio to record his first big band album, Tribute, featuring all original compositions and guest appearances from the likes of Steve Coleman, Henry Threadgill, and more.

This week at The Jazz Gallery, Prieto will convene his long-running Si o Si Quartet for two nights of performances, including a special reception on Thursday evening where you can get a chance to meet Dafnis and help bring this exciting new album to fruition. We at Jazz Speaks caught up with Dafnis by phone to talk about the challenges of writing for this new medium and the importance of the big band sound to the Cuban jazz tradition.

The Jazz Gallery: This is a blunt question to start with, but why put together a big band and why now?

Dafnis Prieto: It’s a combination of a few things. First, it’s that I’ve had the experience of playing with a few big bands in the past—I did a recording with the Bebo Valdes big band, for one—and I’ve always been curious about how my music and my ideas would sound in a larger format. I’ve also written a few pieces for Arturo O’Farrill’s Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra and I liked the way they came out. After that, I got a call from my co-producer Eric Oberstein, who became a great friend and partner on this big band project. I’m really excited to have the guys play my music and to have the experience of my music done in this way.

TJG: Were those pieces for the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra the first time you had written for big band?

DP: Yes, they were. At that time, they were working with Jazz at Lincoln Center and they commissioned me to write something for their concert. The resulting piece was called “Song for Chico,” which was dedicated to Chico O’Farrill. That was my first experience writing.

TJG: What did you learn from the Afro-Latin Orchestra commission about writing for big band, or how your compositional voice transferred to this new medium?

DP: I really learned a lot about the possibilities that the instrumentation provided, especially in terms of textures and voicings. I had new ways of manipulating how a musical idea comes out, making it sound as rich as possible with all the various timbres of the orchestra. There is of course a lot of richness in terms of pure sound, but I also sought to have a richness of rhythmic ideas between all of the parts.

TJG: When you were translating some of your preexisting music for smaller ensembles to the big band, how did the instrumental forces change the impact of the piece?

DP: Actually, I felt that many of the pieces that I adapted from other bands were the most challenging to work with. I already had a sense of completeness with these pieces, whether they were for a quartet or sextet. I hit a wall a few times trying to figure out what else to do with them. At those points, I had to let myself go, open myself to new possibilities, and let my imagination come through, and I eventually figured out what else I could do with those songs. A few of the older songs that I re-did for this project have completely new introductions, for example, and then some of the original material for smaller ensembles are embedded within the arrangement.

TJG: The richness of your rhythmic approach that you spoke of earlier is interesting to hear because a lot of times the more players there are, the harder it is to make really complicated rhythms speak. How did you manage with the translation of complex rhythms from small group to big band?

DP: I fully trust all the players to play the parts—they’re all great and I felt comfortable writing what I wanted for them. Many of them came from recommendations from people I play with a lot, so everyone has some connection to the kinds of things I like to do. It’s a really strong lineup.

I’ve always been sensitive to the difficulties of certain parts when writing, but on the other hand, I always want to push myself and the other musicians so that we can all grow together and reach a new place. It’s going to be challenging, but nothing we can’t accomplish. I really sought to have the ideas as digested and clear as possible in the charts so we can all enjoy playing and not get too hung up on certain parts.

TJG: As you worked on your arrangements, did you find yourself going back to earlier big band composers for inspiration, or to help solve certain compositional problems?

DP: I definitely listened to the classic big bands, like Count Basie or Duke or many others. That’s something I’ve done in the past as well to enrich my awareness, so I can see and enjoy what other people are doing. But when it comes to me writing the music, I try to speak from the inside. Certain techniques might remind me of something that I heard elsewhere, but overall, I’m definitely not thinking in terms of copy and paste, or imitation. In terms of dealing with inspiration, whether in the big band form or elsewhere, I’m trying to do it in as sincere a way as possible. I feel the point of this big band is that I haven’t heard these kind of sounds in that format before. That’s one thing that I’m really excited about—to present a new kind of big band sound.

TJG: Your upcoming album is called Tribute and it features a number of musical tributes to your musical predecessors. This creates a strong connection with the past and tradition, and so I’d like to hear your thoughts about the big band in the tradition of Afro-Cuban music and how you fit into that tradition.

DP: When I was a child in Santa Clara, Cuba, I used to listen to a local big band that was very strong, filled with great musicians. They played some Cuban music, but they also played American music, like tunes by Herbie Hancock, or Maynard Ferguson big band tunes. I heard that music when I was a kid, about 9, 10 years old. Since then, I’ve always enjoyed that sound.

In the case of the album, I’m not just paying tribute to Cuban musicians, or big band musicians, but musicians of different kinds who’ve influenced me in a big way. This was hard, because I couldn’t do a complete job in one record! So I’ve picked the ones who have been closest or the most relevant to me in this moment, including people that I’ve gotten to work with in the past—like Eddie Palmieri, Steve Coleman, and Henry Threadgill. Steve and Henry are going to be special guests on the recording as well. And then of course Chico O’Farrill and Mario Bauza and Chano Pozo and Dizzy Gillespie, the people who really helped bring around the birth of what we call now Latin Jazz. In that form, the big band has been inherited by Cuban culture, basically since the format was developed. Right away it seemed, there were great Cuban singers working with big bands, like Beny Moré. And in terms of the mambo style, all of those big hits were with big bands.

TJG: You’ve worked with Steve and Henry in the past, and they have very strong and particular musical languages, so how did you go about writing the pieces that featured them? How did their languages blend with yours?

DP: The piece that Steve Coleman is going to record is one of the pieces I wrote for the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra, “Song for Chico.” Since the beginning of writing this piece, I thought that I’d like to marry two different kinds of sounds, and it reminded me of the recording Charlie Parker did… I can’t remember the name of the album right now… but I wanted to have that sound with a more jazz-oriented alto player on top of a more Cuban background. When I had that sound in mind, I definitely thought of Steve because he can capture that feeling of Charlie Parker really well in his own way.

The piece for Henry is new, and I wrote it with him in mind. It was definitely fun writing for his personality in relation to the main musical idea that I was playing with.

TJG: There’s been a long tradition of drummers who lead big bands, like Chick Webb or Gene Krupa or Mel Lewis or guys like John Hollenbeck today. How do you approach leading a big band from the drum chair? What can you do as a drummer to direct the music?

DP: I’ve certainly always done that in smaller configurations. I’ve always cued stuff from behind the drum set. This is just going to be larger, but mostly the same approach—that’s who I am as a player. I definitely have to be even more solid in terms of cueing, but the music really facilitates that. It welcomes you into the music. I don’t want to have a preconceived notion of how everything is supposed to go. Since I’ve already done so much in the creation of the music by writing and arranging it, I want to just let it flow when we perform and be more of a listener. I want to be a part of the band so we can all explore the music together.

TJG: Thanks so much for talking with us, Dafnis. We’re really excited to hear how the project comes out!

DP: I’m really thankful for The Jazz Gallery for giving me the opportunity to have these performances with Si o Si quartet and have a fundraiser for the big band project. We’re going to record at the end of August and are really pushing ourselves to make the elephant fly!

The Dafnis Prieto Si o Si Quartet plays The Jazz Gallery on Wednesday, May 17th, and Thursday, May 18th, 2017. The group features Mr. Prieto on drums, Roman Filiu on saxophone, Manuel Valera on piano, and Johannes Weidenmueller on bass. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. each night. $25 general admission ($15 for members), $30 reserved cabaret seating ($20 for members), for each set. Purchase tickets here. 

On Thursday evening, please join us for a pre-concert reception at 6:30 P.M. featuring wine and light hors d’oeuvres, and a conversation with Prieto and producer Eric Oberstein. Reception tickets available here.