Unfinished Spaces is the soundtrack to the documentary film of the same name — a revealing examination of the creation and ongoing evolution of Havana, Cuba’s renowned Escuela Nacional de Arte (National School of Art), which has produced such notable talent as pianists Chucho Valdés and Gonzalo Rubalcaba and drummer Dafnis Prieto.
Composer Giancarlo Vulcano, a New York City native, has honed his knowledge of Latin American music as a member of the popular group Las Rubias del Norte. For Unfinished Spaces, he’s borrowed from a range of styles, including Third Stream, chamber music, traditional Cuban, and free jazz. He blends those elements in attention-grabbing new ways, creating an aural mosaic that flows, like the scenes of the film itself, logically — if sometimes jarringly — from one track to the next.
To a conventional string quartet, Vulcano has added acoustic bass, saxophone, trumpet, percussion and his own guitar and keyboard work. His arrangements tend toward sparseness and angularity. The first of the disc’s 20 tracks, all of which range in duration from one to five minutes, sets the mood with eerie acoustic guitar chords, sustained harmonies from the strings and the tropical metronome of a pair of wood claves. The following track, “Me Siento Bien Aqui” (I Feel Good Here), is elegant and swinging, tracing its lineage to traditional Cuban dance forms from the 1950s. The next work, “You Take It or You Leave It,” segues into more stylistically adventurous territory where a bass ostinato and a spontaneous barrage of rim shots, cymbal crashes and jagged snare-drum accents are accompanied by the pizzicato inflections and vaporous chords of overdubbed strings.
Vulcano makes effective use of trumpeter Laurie Krein, who provides mournful, sustained notes at irregular intervals. Meanwhile saxophonist Jim Bruening — the ensemble’s most jazz-like voice — is often employed to interpret the composer’s sketchy melody lines in a breathy, flighty manner.
Like the unconventional architecture documented in the film, Unfinished Spaces offers a suite of sounds that is alternately playful and intellectual, adding up to a rewarding departure from the predictable.