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Every bit as remarkable as the vibrant, passionate music on Desde Lejos (Summit), the latest recording by the Dominican Jazz Project, is the mere fact of its existence. The myriad challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic were daunting enough, especially given that assorted participants lived in different countries and couldn’t travel. But the crew was also beset by multiple health-related crises, including the death of beloved bassist and bandmate Jeffry Eckels.
"I was in shock — we all were,” says Dr. Stephen Anderson, a gifted pianist whose 2014 trip to the Jazzomania Jazz Festival in Santo Domingo provided the spark that led to the Dominican Jazz Project’s formation. “That was a big tragedy.”
The original idea for Desde Lejos (in English, “from afar”) came from a much happier place. “I’ve been wanting to do another project with this band for a long time,” says Anderson, who serves as director of jazz studies at the University of North Carolina. “This is my favorite band to work with on the planet.”
In March 2020, Anderson and his cohorts in the Dominican Republic, including drummer Guy Frómeta, saxophonist Sandy Gabriel, guitarist-vocalist Carlos Luis and percussionist-vocalist David Almengod, were getting ready to cut a sequel to the unit’s self-titled 2016 debut when COVID-19 struck the music business full force. Initially, Anderson used this period to write new material that would supplement a pair of gorgeous Luis-penned ballads, “Como un Rayo Ciego” and “Una Más,” already earmarked for inclusion. But in May, Eckels’ mother died of natural causes. This loss, in combination with the isolation and financial problems caused by the pandemic, exacerbated mental-health issues with which Eckels had long struggled. He lost his battle on July 3.
In the days that followed, Anderson processed his grief by creating the roiling “Sin Palabras” (in English, “speechless”). “I wrote it out of pure emotion,” he says. Additionally, the group cut the rhythmically tricky “Siempre Adelante,” one of Eckels’ compositions, as another tribute to him.
Meanwhile, more heartbreaking complications followed — among them the August 2020 death of Gabriel’s father, revered Dominican musician Sócrates Gabriel, and an extended illness suffered by the mother of Ramón Vázquez Martirena, a Cuban bassist now living in Puerto Rico, who’d agreed to play on the recording after Eckels’ passing. Martirena eventually contributed to six tracks, with Craig Butterfield and Jason Foureman, both close friends of Eckels’, also pitching in. Other key guests included renowned Cuban trumpeter Mayquel González and Dominican clavietta legend Guillo Carias.
The process of assembling the songs required a significant learning curve for Anderson. “I would never have recorded remotely,” he admits, “but Guy [Frómeta] is very comfortable with that. By early fall, we were sending tracks back and forth daily. I recorded all my parts, then sent out the charts, and one by one, everyone started filling them in.”
Doing so wasn’t easy. “Normally in rehearsal, you might say, ‘That’s cool, but maybe let’s do it a little more this way,’” Anderson explains. “But instead, the musicians would have to record something and upload it, and we’d have to download it and then say that in a message sent over WhatsApp. That took forever. It was like an ongoing studio session that lasted six months.”
Somehow, though, songs such as the exuberant opener “Fuera de la Oscuridad” and the strutting “Un Cambio de Ritmo” sound as spontaneous as if the players had all been in the same room together. “I was surprised, actually,” Anderson admits. “And delighted.”
Still, the performers are most excited about being on the same stage again. A mini-tour is in the planning stages, and Anderson says, “We all can’t wait.” — Michael Roberts