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Jane Bunnett’s Afro-Cuban sounds are laced with jazzy improv

Jane Bunnett and Maqueque. Photo courtesy of the Montreal International Jazz Festival

Jane Bunnett and Maqueque. Photo courtesy of the Montreal International Jazz Festival

Almost as soon as saxophonist Jane Bunnett got a taste of Cuban music in its many forms, she was hooked.

That was some 30 years ago, and lately she’s been touring with an all-female quintet from Cuba that represents what turned her on in the first place.

Bunnett will be leading her group Maqueque (pronounced ma-kay-kay), which is all about the music’s youthful energy, enthusiasm, joyful creativity, and heart.

“When the girls hit the stage their enthusiasm becomes contagious – it transcends the bandstand,” Bunnett was saying from her Parkdale home in Toronto where she billets the band.

“The feedback I’m getting is that this is a fresh, young sound, steeped in Cuban rhythms, and the inflection of jazz, but because of all the vocals, there are these intertwining harmonies.” Bunnett created the group, a successor to her Spirits of Havana ensemble, because “not enough was being
done for the young women instrumentalists in Cuba.

“They weren’t getting the opportunities to perform.”

On her many trips, Bunnett says she tried to encourage the young women she met at conservatories “to get up and play at the jam sessions – and they just didn’t want to do it.”

“They seemed content to be on the sidelines and listen to their boyfriends play!”

Since over half the students are women, it seemed like such a waste, she thought.

Two in the group she then created have just finished their studies, and three are still in the conservatory. The current crew is aged 22 to 27.

“I scouted out the musicians in 2014, looking for women who had the spirit to be in a jazz band, love for Afro-Cuban music, and had an interest in improvisation.”

In their first CD, the Juno Award winning Maqueque (Justin Time/Universal), the group recorded original music intertwined with re-arranged Afro-Cuban chants and drums. In their second CD, Odarra (Linus Entertainment) there are original contributions from every band member. It is steeped in the Afro-Cuban tradition, but with a modern sound.

“They know the material, it’s their religion, their world, and they bring something to it that is of their culture. I bring my experience of almost 40 years in jazz, being able to make it a fusion that does justice to both idioms.”

At the Montreal gig on Wednesday, July 5, the group shares the bill with the veteran Cuban trumpet player, Arturo Sandoval.

We first met Bunnett in the 1980s at the jazz festival when she debuted her performance career in a sparkling duo set with the explosive jazz pianist Don Pullen.

“He was such a powerful performer, it just never felt the same playing with other pianists – the level of the power, and the energy – I missed that,” she recalled.

“When I started playing with some of the Cuban groups I felt the same power of the music, the fact it was so highly rhythmic, as Don Pullen was.

“There were no Americans there at the time, and it seemed like a gift that had fallen from the sky when I started to meet Cuban musicians. They were intrigued by us and I saw in them an extremely strong collaborative nature, which I love.”

And so began her continuing love affair with Cuban musical traditions.

“Cubans are inventive and innovative, and I recognized that pretty quickly. Travelling around the country we discovered this genre of music, one with a European influence, another with Haïtian influence. It has become such a fascinating adventure because of the depth of the music, it’s so rich, older than American jazz, and there is so much to discover.”

While she still works on American jazz material, “the ongoing intrigue really is this Cuban music, because it’s historic, and with all the influences coming in, I wonder, will the music change, will it not be preserved?”

She hopes to keep the music and the group going as an active creative experience.
It is not easy to get gigs in Cuba, with all the bureaucratic obstacles and the macho domination of the scene, she noted.

And in North America, it’s not much easier for the majority of working musicians.

“It’s pretty tough out there. I’m in a position to offer opportunities for some of the musicians I am meeting. It is totally exhausting.”

Bunnett and Maqueque have more than 25 dates in Canada and the U.S. on their current schedule.

Jane Bunnett and Maqueque and Arturo Sandoval are at Théâtre Maisonneuve, July 5, 8 pm, $51-$59. Tickets and info: Montrealjazzfest.com

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