Leave it to sax player, chekeré master and educator Yosvany Terry to meticulously weave the story of his Afro-Cuban/Haitian ancestry into a relevant modern musical lexicon. When not in Cambridge, where he currently directs Harvard University’s jazz ensembles, Terry can be found at home in New York, where he’s a leading exponent of the city’s effervescent Afro-Cuban jazz scene.
On Ancestral Memories, Terry delves into the cross-pollination of France and Africa in the New World, co-leading a quartet with prodigious French pianist Baptiste Trotignon. Rounded out by Terry’s brother, Yunior Terry, on contrabass, and Jeff “Tain” Watts on trap set, this modern-jazz ensemble delivers a seamlessly enthralling 10-track suite. The work was inspired by musical traditions that emerged from the African Diaspora in the former French territories of Louisiana and the Caribbean, which Terry describes as an “Antilles aesthetic,” or a melding of “the sophistication of language with dance.” Ancestral Memories reveals a meeting of the minds between Terry and Trotignon, who share compositional credits, as well as the genealogies, etched into their musical DNA.
Album opener “The Call” uses the structure of the West African-rooted call-and-response traditions of Guadeloupe and Haiti to build on the ever-fluid syncretism between cultures and the intersections within rhythmic, melodic and harmonic lines. The conspicuous absence of hand percussion, which is at the heart of the music that serves as the program’s reference point, is brilliantly countered by Watts. The drummer transcribes raw polyrhythms into innovative time signatures while managing to preserve their ancestral essence.
In contrast, “Reunion” highlights the magic of the chekeré. The distinctive sound of the beaded-gourd instrument is offset by symbiotic meanderings of piano and sax while melodic ceremonial chants contour the track’s modern-jazz inflections. A swinging ode to New Orleans, “The French Quarter” is infused with Trotignon’s Jelly Roll Morton-inspired tremolos and vibrant comping. Quieter pieces, such as “Bohemian Kids” and “Hymn,” offer respite from the album’s overall exuberance, displaying elegance in their brooding melancholy.
“Lost Souls,” the closing track, proves that even in a scaled-back ensemble Terry can deliver the dynamic pieces for which he’s known, given the right creative partner.
— Lissette Corsa