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The high-ceilinged colonial house in Havana that Ramón Sabat converted into a recording studio while founding Panart, Cuba’s first independent label, is where Pérez Prado recorded his earliest mambos and Nat King Cole made his first Spanish-language tracks. It was host to the first cha-cha-chá on record, “La Enganadora,” performed by the composer Enrique Jorrin with Orquesta America. Still, the jam sessions — or descargas, as the Cubans called them — held there beginning in 1956 made for the label’s most thrilling recordings of all. A new boxed set, The Complete Cuban Jam Sessions (Craft Recordings), reissues on CD the music of five classic Panart LPs drawn from these sessions in their entirety and original format for the first time, with extensive liner notes. A half-century later, the music remains stunning. Its accompanying story reveals a somewhat hidden history filled with important moments of musical synthesis.
[caption id="attachment_17538" align="alignleft" width="272"] Julio Gutierrez[/caption]
“After the musicians in Julio Gutiérrez’s band played their final set at Havana’s Hotel Nacional one night in 1956, they shed their frilly-sleeved, shiny guarachera shirts and changed into their favored streetwear. … The U.S. tourists in satin dresses and tuxedos headed back to their marvelous modern hotels, confident they had seen it all during their weekend in Havana.” So begins the story told by Judy Cantor-Navas in the liner notes to The Complete Cuban Jam Sessions. As it turns out, those American tourists had hardly seen or heard anything. After his hotel gig, Gutiérrez connected with other top musicians from Cuba’s golden age of music at the Panart studio. What happened there that night, according to master bassist and mambo pioneer Israel “Cachao” López, made “music do a 360-degree turn.”
The earliest Havana jam sessions blended 20th-century jazz innovations with ancient rhythms and ritual drumming, transforming popular dance music and song forms into something entirely new. The first descarga recording was a 1952 Mercury session organized by U.S. producer Norman Granz and led by pianist Bebo Valdés. Despite Cantor-Navas’ extensive research, neither she nor anyone else can cite the precise date of the 1956 Panart all-night session, instigated by pianists Gutiérrez and Pedro “Peruchín” Jústiz, that yielded Cuban Jam Session, Volumes 1 and 2. (Master tapes and artwork were brought to the United States before the Castro regime seized Panart, but production notes never made it.)
[caption id="attachment_17539" align="alignnone" width="1024"] Bebo Valdes leads a descarga in Cuba.[/caption]
The promotional copy from Vol. 2’s original back cover, reproduced in the new boxed set, got it right in describing the music as “a manifestation of joy, in the rhythms and the soloists, impossible to capture during a formal recording session.” The first two volumes, which credit Gutiérrez as leader, indeed sound spontaneous but also tightly cohesive. These musicians were having fun yet also creating new templates for Cuban music. Gutiérrez or Peruchín would typically establish a tempo, key signature and tumbao (a four-bar musical phrase), and the band would be off and running. Within some tracks, a riff or section of an American tune — Billy Strayhorn’s “Take the ‘A’ Train” or Charlie Parker’s “Scrapple from the Apple” — appears, but phrased in a distinctly Cuban dialect and punctuated by hand percussion. Many of the tracks are peppered with studio chatter and enthusiastic shouts. The female voice laughing devilishly and urging the musicians on during Vol. 1’s “Perfidia” is Omara Portuondo, who, a half-century later, would record with Buena Vista Social Club in that very studio (since renamed Areito, and now serving the state-run Egrem label).
Subsequent volumes in the new set include sessions led by Niño Rivera, a bebop-loving master of the tres, a small Cuban guitar, and José Fajardo, a popular flutist and bandleader. The clearest treasure in this collection and the best-known of these Panart albums, the fourth volume in this set, was released in the United States in 1957 under the title Cuban Jam Sessions in Miniature. It was the debut album as a leader for Cachao, who, while directing an all-star ensemble, displays the authority and invention that would place him among the 20th century’s most influential musicians. The pulses from Cachao’s bass and the beats passed back and forth by percussionist Tata Güines and drummer Guillermo Barreto on one track, “Descarga Cubana,” must have been mesmerizing in that moment. They’ve since served as inspiration for generations of salsa musicians and for the innovations of Cuban pianist Chucho Valdés. (It’s worth noting that Oscar Valdés (no relation), who was a 13-year-old bongo player at the first 1956 Panart descarga, played batá, the two-headed drums of Afro-Cuban rituals, on Chucho’s groundbreaking 1972 album Jazz Batá and was a founding member of Irakere, the group with which Chucho more deeply revolutionized Cuban music. The Complete Cuban Jam Sessions documents the important flipside of Cuban music’s golden age: the informal gatherings that took place away from the colorful stage shows and splendid decadence of Havana’s fabled nightlife. It also helps tell the Panart label’s tale, which has fascinated Cantor-Navas ever since she found a cache of poorly packaged compilation CDs, featuring a mishmash of classic Cuban songs drawn from Panart recordings, in the discount bin of a Miami record store. In a 1996 story for Miami New Times, written after the Panart catalog was sold to the Mexican Musart label, she recounted the tale of Ramon Sabat, the musician and engineer who founded Panart and, against odds, competed against RCA Victor and other foreign companies to capture a Cuban market and expose the best Cuban musicians to international audiences. At the height of his success, Sabat met a force with which he could not compete: the Castro revolution. The Sabat family went into exile in Miami, thankfully bringing most of their master recordings with them.
When the Concord Music Group, of which Craft Music is a division, purchased the Panart catalog in 2016, Castro-Navas reached out to label executive Mason Williams, who co-produced The Complete Cuban Jam Sessions. The two appreciated the value of the music, as well as the related story of how a small, feisty label captured it. They set out to reissue the tracks in an elegant format, and to include as much context as possible. (A larger boxed set relating the Panart story is planned for later this year, and Castro-Navas is working on a book about the label).
Aside from the pure pleasure these recordings provide, there’s important history contained in this set and perhaps a corrective or two. With Cuban Jam Sessions, Cantor-Navas told me, “I wanted to make clear that these sessions were indicative of a whole scene that was going on.” She quotes drummer Wilfredo de los Reyes, Sr., who played on those 1956 sessions: “In those days we were called ‘Third World.’ I say baloney to that! We were as far ahead as anyone else.” In his landmark book Cubano Be, Cubano Bop: One Hundred Years of Jazz in Cuba, the Cuban musician and musicologist Leonardo Acosta wrote: “Sometimes critics and historians from the United States can be excessively provincial. … For this reason, many say that Afro-Cuban jazz, mambo, or salsa were created or ‘invented’ in New York.” His book, he wrote, proved that “things don’t tend to be so simple.” So do these recordings. —Larry Blumenfeld Feature image of Cachao Y Orchestra provided courtesy the Concord Music Group.