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Standing on the tiny stage of Manhattan’s Zinc Bar in November, the dozen or so musicians in Michele Rosewoman’s New-Yoruba ensemble were packed in tight. In celebration of a new release, Hallowed (Advance Dance Disques), Rosewoman and her group played sections of “Oru de Oro,” an extended work based on sacred Yoruba rhythms played on batá — two-headed hand drums essential to Afro-Cuban ceremonies. This suite, which spans 10 of the new album’s dozen tracks and nearly 50 minutes, is, by turns, tender and driving, simply stated and complex. It frames ancient rituals in a new context. It places the sound of large-ensemble modern jazz in a fresh light. And for Rosewoman, it represents an exciting new chapter of a personal tale that spans more than 30 years.
“How do stories start?” Rosewoman wonders aloud when I ask about her music’s origins at the Lower East Side apartment she's called home since settling in New York City in 1978. Her own story began in Oakland, California, surrounded by music, not least because her parents owned a record shop. She began playing piano at age 6. After high school, pianist and organist Ed Kelly taught her jazz “the old-school way,” she says. Soon after, she began studying Afro-Cuban percussion, which she was drawn to as powerfully as she had been drawn to jazz. “But they were still parallel worlds,” she says.
Once in New York, those worlds began converging in Rosewoman’s mind. “I literally dreamed about these folkloric, spiritually powerful songs in a contemporary jazz setting,” she says. “I thought, ‘What? How?’ I needed to work it out.” She began setting Afro-Cuban cantos (ritual chants) in contemporary musical settings. Around that time, at the Manhattan club Soundscape, she met percussionist and singer Orlando “Puntilla” Ríos, who'd arrived in New York from Cuba in 1980. It’s hard to overstate Ríos's impact at that time, in terms of building a community in New York City around West African traditions, transmitted via Cuba.
Puntilla, a singularly important mentor for Rosewoman, became the spiritual and sonic centerpiece of New Yor-Uba, the group she created to realize her cross-cultural vision. She recalls that group’s public debut, at Manhattan’s Public Theater in 1983, as if it were yesterday. Onstage at the piano, she was surrounded by musicians who represented a rare union of free-thinkers drawn from New York jazz’s top rank, such as saxophonist Oliver Lake, and masters of Afro-Cuban traditions. “You could see the horn players listening to the drummers with their mouths hanging open and the drummers staring at the horn players with wide eyes,” she says. “The musicians had never heard anything like it.”
Rosewoman’s 1996 album, Spirit, presented her in a standard piano-trio setup. Her jazz quintet evolved in brilliant and unconventional fashion across five albums. Yet New Yor-Uba, her deepest-held expression, remained undocumented until the release in 2013 of Michele Rosewoman's New Yor-Uba: A Musical Celebration of Cuba in America, a double-CD of startling ambition and beauty. Two years later Rosewoman received a commission from Chamber Music America to compose new music. “It was clear to me what to do,” she says. She’d been delving deeply into the traditions of the batá, and into the ‘Oru Seco,” which is a specific sequence of rhythms, each identified with an orisha (Yoruba diety), played in sacred chambers before public ceremonies. Rosewoman’s suite “Oru de Oro” (which translates roughly to “room of gold”) treats these batá rhythms as precious gems, presenting them in luminous and original settings that accentuate their multi-faceted allure and power. “That batá tradition explores the cracks of time,” she says. “They reveal endless nuances that one never knew existed.” In those cracks and nuances, she heard new musical possibilities.
If Puntilla informed and inspired New Yor-Uba’s earliest music, Román Díaz now serves that function. Díaz, a master Cuban percussionist and folklorist, began working with Rosewoman a decade ago. As a font of Afro-Cuban tradition, he is as forceful and precious to today’s New York scene as Puntilla once was. He also works regularly with leading jazz players, displaying great dexterity and curiosity. Puntilla was a master percussionist, but it was his voice that motivated Rosewoman most of all; New-Yoruba’s early repertoire was shaped largely around vocal chants. The group’s new incarnation is more squarely focused on rhythms and instrumentals.
The “Oru Seco” is a strict tradition. “Each master interprets it somewhat differently,” Rosewoman says, “and has their own feel.” (In that way, its legacy, much like jazz’s, is shaped by individual masters.) To create her suite, Rosewoman asked Díaz for a recording of him playing the “Oru Seco” at a ceremony. With that as her anchor, she dove into composing. “I had to go deep in and not come out of my mind or my heart or my house for quite some time,” she says. In traditional Afro-Cuban music, three percussionists play batá; on the new CD, this includes Mauricio Herrera and Rafael Monteagudo. Yet Díaz, on Iya (the largest, or “mother” drum of the three), provides the clear lead.
Rosewoman describes the music she composed to surround batá rhythms as “embellishments” or “decorations,” but it amounts to far more; she has created a complete original musical structure that breathes as one with the batá, negotiating its rhythmic transitions, and that is studded with harmonic innovation, well-placed improvisations, drama and even humor. Her music honors the legacies of jazz masters like Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus and Cecil Taylor as clearly as the batá serves Yoruba dieties. Throughout, her distinct brand of pianism — highly refined and yet, in spots, often quite daring — shines through.
If Rosewoman’s music is a wondrous marriage of Afro-Cuban and jazz traditions, it benefits from a current generation of musicians who, she says, are “musically bilingual.” These include saxophonist Román Filiú, who is Cuban, and bassist Gregg August, born in the United States. Together, with Rosewoman as leader and Díaz as anchor, New-Yoruba doesn’t so much bridge traditions; rather, it reveals deep and mysterious connections that have always existed. “Jazz is a world of extending and expanding tradition,” Rosewoman says. “The rhythmic traditions of Cuba are about maintaining tradition. But the idea of obscuring things seems fundamental to both. The idea is to know something so well that you don’t have to state it.” - Larry Blumenfeld