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Encores and Curtain Calls

When jazz & salsa fuse ... dance!

Ed Byrne brings his Latin Jazz Evolution to Arts Block tonight

“I want to explore all kinds of music, not get stuck in one groove. It’s just my nature.”

— Eddie Palmieri,
Latin jazz musician

Jazz is a moving target. While there will always be the niche categories that have defined jazz throughout various periods of its past, such as swing, blues and dixieland, the cross-cultural fertilization catalyzed by contemporary media and the ease of travel make fusion jazz not only the progressive artistic choice but also an inevitability.

If you peek under the hood of any great artist, or even any non-artist, and look there for the source of their art, you will see a great, interwoven knot of diversity, difference and contrast.

Take George Gershwin, America’s most iconic musical voice, as an example. The son of immigrant Ukrainian Jews, the Gershovitz family, having passed through the processing of Ellis Island, proceeded only of a mile or so farther up Manhattan Island to set up shop for the duration. So did millions of other similar families from a wide array of ethnic backgrounds, providing the raw human infrastructure for contemporary American culture as we know it today.

In those days and, to a lesser extent, even today, those newly arrived cultures naturally tended to settle within their own enclaves located in various parts of the city, such as Little Germany, Little Italy and Harlem. It was a way of retaining their sense of community and tradition.

But neighborhoods and cultures coexisting in such close quarters, despite the inevitable frictions, eventually absorbed and processed each other’s unique languages, customs and music.

Gershwin knew firsthand the august cantorial tradition of his Jewish forebears, but being a young genius with sponge-like ears, he couldn’t help hearing and internalizing the many mingled musics and voices of coexistent cultures as he played on his front stoop, listened from his window in the evening, or strolled uptown to see the latest and greatest performers in Harlem’s Cotton Club.

Meanwhile, the young Gershwin was hard at work, nose to the grindstone, soaking up the best of the classical tradition now under the tutelage of several exacting mentors: Charles Hambitzer for piano skills and Joseph Schillinger for tutelage composition. But pulling him from the other side was his delight in the music of both the African American and Latin traditions — music full of rhythmic energy and joy.

He also loved the glorious racket of Tin Pan Alley, that hallowed avenue of popular American song, and was himself a song plugger at the age of 15, a job that required hours of daily immersion into every conceivable genre of pop music.

Pull out any of these influences from Gershwin and you no longer have Gershwin as we know him. He, like all the rest of us, is an ingenious fusion of multiple influences. In, say his Concerto in F, we can hear it all: Broadway, Beethoven, Tin Pan Alley, Blues, Ravel, spirituals.

Nor does it come out as musical goulash, but rather as extraordinary and elegantly crafted art. It works magnificently. Multiple influences would also be found when probing into the likes of Bach, The Beatles or any other artist of choice.

Which brings us to Ed Byrne, whose Latin Jazz Evolution sextet will be performing at the Arts Block, 289 Main St., Greenfield on Thursday night, March 28, from 8:30 to 11. Tickets are $7 online, $10 at door, theartsblock.com.

Byrne writes that the ensemble “has been re-formed, for more jazz intensity with a new rhythm section and focus.”

A 16-year veteran of the New York jazz scene, Byrne is a trombonist and composer who has worked with Eddie Palmieri, Dizzy Gillespie, James Brown, Chet Baker and Herbie Hancock, among scads of others.

This, from A lex Henderson, of the All Music Guide:

Ed Byrne is a lyrical trombonist who still isn’t as well known as he should be. Swinging and enjoyable, ‘Two Shades of Blue’ indicates that Byrne should be doing a lot more recording as a leader.”

Recently, I spoke with Byrne:

JM: If you don’t mind going back to square one, for the uninitiated, how would you describe Latin jazz, from the point of view of an American?

EB: Jazz is a style, of course, of western art music, and within that, jazz has its relatives — the African-influenced music – mostly through the rhythm and the use of the blues, which infuses all of those styles, like rhythm and blues and jazz Latin. But Latin has a very specific rhythmic language based upon the regional dances from country to country or island to island ... Puerto Rican and Cuban music have a lot of similarities, like the basic clave — the rhythm that underlies all their rhythms. But there are definitely noticeable stylistic differences, there are linguistic differences — rhythms they prefer in each of their sub-cultures. But it’s based in dance music; salsa would be the complete realization of that. With jazz, jazz harmonies are much more complex and takes a lot more liberties with the rhythms. Jazz sort of combines, at will, any and all of its relatives. It brings them in and treats them more loosely. It’s not strictly dance music. The primary of function of Latin music is to get people to dance.

JM: Whereas the inspiration of mainstream jazz is derived from the African American vocal tradition, with its flatted (lowered) thirds and sevenths (steps of the scale), a very common phenomenon in tribal cultures.

EB: Yes, and the flatted fifth.

JM: Do all of the Latin genres you just mentioned hang out in 4/4 time, for the most part?

EB: Yes, but Latin jazz often gets into meters. My first album has a lot of 7 and 5, and sometimes 7 then 8, 7 and 8. Traditional Latin music is never in odd meters, it’s always in 4/4.

JM: So the delight of Latin musicians seems to be in finding ways to “cut up” that 4/4, to syncopate it (place it off the beat) and make it otherwise more intriguing.

EB: Yes, what happens is. it is like African music in that it’s based on short, repetitive rhythmic phrases stacked one upon the other and it makes a polyphony (multiple simultaneous musical lines), an intentional polyphony of rhythm. But, normally, there’s only like three chords in the pieces they improvise on. Jazz uses mostly 18th-century harmony, some 19th century, but mostly 18th century. My own music has a lot of 20th century harmony — bitonality (music in two or more simultaneous keys) pantonality (music in broader key centers) and other stuff.

JM: I always wondered about that, because I’ve never been attracted to the Latin popular music because I’m a great ravisher of harmony, Ravel being my favorite composer ...

EB: ... me too! He’s been a big influence on me.

JM: ... and if you study a Ravel score, you’ll see that you can’t pull one harmonic progression of the entire structure without the whole effect collapsing; there’s an inevitability about the progression and a beauty to that inevitability which makes it special. Whereas, as you say, with Latin music, they use mostly the three primary colors and focus on the rhythm as the arena of all the excitement. So I was always wondering, why hasn’t somebody come along, kept the Latin rhythmic infrastructure, and applied more sophisticated or intriguing harmonies to it?

EB: Well, I pioneered that in the early ’70s in New York City with others and we made some influential albums, too. Bobby Pinnetto’s album, “Committed to Memory,” was like that. In fact, I was nominated for a Grammy for my tune “Fenway Funk,” which I recorded on my new CD “Conquistador,” and we’ll be playing that Thursday night (tonight) among others.

An author and composer, columnist Joseph Marcello of Northfield focuses on music and theater. He can be reached at
josephmarcello@verizon.net.

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