NEW YORK (AP) — Wynton Marsalis opened Jazz at Lincoln Center's 2014-15 season with the world premiere of "Ochas," a three-movement suite blending jazz with the traditional folkloric music of Cuba and the Afro-Cuban Santeria religion.
At a pre-concert reception Thursday night, Marsalis said the 2014-15 season would be "a spectacular journey through the Americas celebrating the depth, diversity and influence of jazz in the Caribbean and North, South and Central America."
The seeds for "Ochas" were planted in 2010 when Marsalis took his Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra to Cuba for a weeklong residency of concerts and educational programs. The trip reinforced his understanding of the links between Cuban music and American jazz, both rooted in African traditions carried over by slaves.
Marsalis collaborated with the influential Cuban pianist and composer Chucho Valdez and rising Cuban percussion star Pedrito Martinez on a JALC commission to create "Ochas," which had its premiere at the Rose Theater on Thursday night.
"Ochas" was perhaps one of the most challenging pieces ever undertaken by the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, centered on a dialogue between the jazz big band and traditional Afro-Cuban bata drums.
Martinez's trio of bata drummers, including his mentor Roman Diaz, used their hands to play intricate rhythmic patterns on the three hourglass-shaped drums of different sizes. He also led the ritual chants sung in the ancestral Yoruban language of Nigeria dedicated to each of the deities in the Santeria pantheon.
The chants became more complex when two female vocalists joined in on the suite's second movement, dedicated to the female deities in Santeria, also known as Regla de Ocha.
The Cuban ensemble was later augmented by a male and a female dancer in brightly colored traditional garb. They performed traditional dances of the Santeria ritual that fuses Yoruban beliefs with some influences from Catholicism.
Against this backdrop, the JLCO played jazz themes intended to evoke the spirit of each Santeria deity. Blistering trumpet solos by Marsalis, Ryan Kisor, Kenny Rampton and Marcus Printup highlighted the section devoted to Ogun, the machete-wielding blacksmith and god of war. A sensuous alto sax solo by Sherman Irby opened the segment devoted to Oshun, the goddess of love, maternity and marriage.
As an ensemble, the JLCO provided a rich palette of musical colors, with growling and muted trumpets and trombones and a reed section that played assorted saxophones, clarinets, flutes and piccolos.
Valdes, 72, made his first appearance on piano in the segment devoted to Obatala, the oldest of the deities known as the creator of Earth and sculptor of mankind. Valdes, who introduced the bata drums into a modern jazz setting with the Afro-Cuban jazz fusion band Irakere in the '70s, provided a bridge between the Cuban drummers and jazz orchestra with his percussive piano playing and virtuosic technique.
JALC will continue its journey through the Americas in upcoming months with performances by Brazil's SpokFrevo Orquestra and guitarist Mario Adnet; Cuban saxophonist-clarinetist Paquito D'Rivera; Panamanian singer and songwriter Ruben Blades; and Mexican singer Lila Downs.
The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra is planning a spring 2015 tour of Brazil, Venezuela and Mexico.