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By Lissette Corsa
In 2013, soprano saxophonist, flutist, bandleader and composer Jane Bunnett formed the all-female Afro-Cuban jazz ensemble Maqueque. Bunnett’s many years immersed in Cuban music gave her an insider’s view into women’s disproportionate underrepresentation in male-dominated music circles on the island. With Maqueque, the Toronto-based jazz artist sought to change that.
Comprised of up-and-coming, mostly classically trained musicians schooled equally in contemporary Cuban music and the music of their ancestors, the collective gained international prominence. Ten years, four albums, one Grammy nomination, one Juno Award and several international tours later, Maqueque’s strong roots continue to nourish new pathways.
Playing With Fire, the band’s latest release, also marks its latest evolution. Overall, the mood is celebratory, but there’s a push to refine and redefine the collective’s sound, as it amplifies Bunnett’s vision of incorporating fresh female voices from Cuba and beyond. At 19, violinist Daniela Olano, Maqueque pianist Dánae Olano’s sister, makes her recording and compositional debut with “Daniela’s Theme,” a buoyant, coquettish tune crafted around danceable polyrhythms that showcase her elegantly assertive technique and broad range. The tune is made sweeter by the mellifluous vocals of another new member, German-Zimbabwean-Canadian singer Joanna Majoko. Throughout the album, Majoko’s breezy runs and supple scatting add a delicate, laid-back dimension to intense, rapid rhythmic section interplays (courtesy of drummer Yissy Garcia, percussionist Mary Paz and bassist Tailin Marrero) and dynamic soloing from Bunnett and pianist Olano.
Guest guitarist Donna Grantis, a longtime member of Prince’s former backing trio 3RDEYEGIRL, elevates album opener “A Human Race” and the title track closer with blistering electric guitar solos and accompaniment. The collective also reimagines two jazz classics: “Tempus Fugit” by pianist Bud Powell, and “Jump Monk,” Charles Mingus’ disjointed, New Orleans-tinged tribute to Thelonious Monk, here given Maqueque treatment with lush, layered vocals, percolating handclaps and a sizzling soprano solo by Bunnett. What started as a project to create opportunities in jazz for Cuban women developed into something greater — a band of kindred spirits reaping the rewards of what’s possible when inclusivity is the norm and not the exception.