When Ottawa pianist Miguel de Armas and Toronto saxophonist Jane Bunnett got together to play for the first time a few years ago, they didn't want to stop.

Miguel de Armas is celebrating 5 years of composing and performing in Canada with this show  ©Brett Delmage, 2015
Miguel de Armas is celebrating 5 years of composing and performing in Canada with this show ©Brett Delmage, 2015
Bunnett still remembers their after-dinner jam at her house in Toronto. “We just kept doing tune and tune after tune. It was like, Omigod, as I was winding down, Miguel was winding up! He was this incredible atomic energy. It's why we love Cubans. This is why they're just amazing. They're so full of energy and creative spirit and collaboration, and let's go for it. We played and played, probably for a couple of hours, to my neighbours' chagrin, and definitely after midnight.”

At their Ottawa concert this Saturday, the music will be limited to 75 minutes, but the zest for playing will be there as much as ever.

Bunnett is one of the best-known proponents of Afro-Cuban jazz in North America; her ground-breaking and award-winning recording, Spirits of Havana, released in 1991, was the first major collaboration of North American and Cuban musicians. De Armas had an extensive professional jazz career in Cuba before coming to Canada.

Saturday's concert will be their first public performance together.

The show will also mark de Armas' fifth anniversary in Canada. He came here to marry Yasmina Proveyer, a Canadian who now acts as his manager and spokesperson. De Armas quickly found a musical niche in Ottawa, performing at festivals and clubs here and in Montreal and southern Ontario. He's made a point of playing with a wide variety of musicians, both inside and outside the Latin community.

Bunnett said that de Armas had been on her radar for years even before he came to Canada. That included his work with the NG La Banda Orchestra, which is “one of the greatest salsa groups ever. I danced to them at a billion parties in Cuba.”

After he moved to Canada, she started hearing about him from Ottawa friends. “A couple of times we crossed paths when I was performing in Ottawa, and he was in the audience. I had another very good friend, René Gely, who is a guitar player who had done some gigs with Miguel and talked very, very favourably about his playing and his compositions. I kept telling René: René, I don't need convincing! You don't really have to tell me how great he is. I already know.”

Especially when I work with a good composer like Miguel, I can really go anywhere in his tunes. They're fun to play. They're demanding, they're hard, the chord changes are hard. They're rooted in that foundation. It's not like it's coming from nowhere, it's coming from a very solid force. And having the experience that I've had with Afro-Cuban music, I just thrive in that.
– Jane Bunnett

But what she didn't know was de Armas' capabilities as a composer. At Saturday's concert, all the pieces will be ones he has written in Canada in the last five years.

When de Armas and Proveyer visited Bunnett in Toronto, they came for dinner. “And most people after dinner just chill out with a cognac or something. But Miguel was like, OK, let's play! He ran over to the piano, and he started banging out some tunes and I ran upstairs and I got my instrument. And Larry [Cramer] pulled out a cellphone and started filming us playing.”

“I woke up the next day, and I said, 'Larry, that guy, he's a real force. I mean, I had only really known Miguel as being the piano player, the guy who's hitting the timbas, the mambos and really generating that energy in that group. And I didn't realize he was such a very, very good composer.”

“We don't know those things with people because everybody has their roles in various groups. And you never know with … when changes happen in people's lives that they take on new experiences. I'm sure he was composing when he was back in Havana, but you have your gig and you do your gig and you play your role, and it's all great. But there's all these other things you can do. And he's an amazing composer!”

Bunnett and de Armas got together in December to run over some of the pieces in the concert. “They were pretty hard but very interesting, and I was trying to figure out his tunes. And now I've come to a revelation that his tunes are highly original, very rooted in specific Afro-Cuban elements, which is what I really, really love.”

“I'm not a big fan of Latin jazz. Latin jazz to me is taking standards and just injecting a clave and a beat underneath it, and soloing. But his tunes, they're very specific. Every tune is one of a kind, and takes on a different character.”

Proveyer said that some of the 15 tunes in the set list come from de Armas' first years in Canada and some are very recent – including two which will debut at the show. They reflect “different phases of his musical personality.”

Jane Bunnett  ©Brett Delmage, 2016
Jane Bunnett ©Brett Delmage, 2016
“Miguel isn't a person who will talk a lot. Sometimes he's a bit quiet. But the best way he can express himself is through music. It's when he becomes highly articulate on different levels: rhythmic, melodic, formally. He has such a good, clear idea of what shape he will give to every tune. It's like in architecture, putting things together and nothing is random. Everything has a reason.”

Saturday's concert came about through the Ottawa Jazz Festival, which offered the opportunity for an Ottawa-Gatineau musician to partner with a musician they hadn't publicly played with before for a concert at the 2017 Winter Jazz Festival. Proveyer said de Armas had always wanted to do something with Bunnett but hadn't found an opportunity to do so, and this was “the perfect place for that show we had in mind for a while.”

“The project is called Afro-Cuban Meets Jazz, and it was basically a platform to invite Jane to play Miguel's music.”

On stage will be de Armas' long-standing Latin Jazz Quartet, with Marc Decho on bass, Arien Villegas on percussion, and Michel Medrano on drums, plus Bunnett and Afro-Cuban bata player and vocalist Amado Dedéu García from Montreal. García will also be adding songs and chants from the Yoruba tradition between sections of the concert.

García plays in the group Clave y Guaguanco, one of the few remaining “serious interpreters now in Cuba of the Afro-Cuban folkloric music,” Bunnett said. “Yoruba Andabo, which was one of the first groups I went with, is almost pretty much done. They're trying to keep themselves together but all the original band members are gone, have passed away. Clave y Guaguanco is directed by Amado Dedéu's father, and they probably have been right up there with the Los Muñequitos de Matanzas and the AfroCuba de Matanzas as the Cuban keepers of the flame of the Afro-Cuban folkloric rumba.”

Bunnett said that García will add a significant musical component to the show. “He's directly in the lineage of this music, and is one of the people who is able to really keep this music alive. To me it's really important to be able to work with someone like him, because it's not watered-down. It's the real deal.”

Proveyer said that García's percussion and vocals will highlight the “Afro-Cuban nature of the show”. García was the lead Yoruba singer and bata player in de Armas' large-scale Afro-Cuban Night show in 2015. De Armas also performed with and recorded with Clave y Guaguanco back in Havana years ago.

Different, but compatible

Bunnett said that her and de Armas' musical styles are different – but compatible. “And that's what we musicians like, because that's what's inspiring: to have somebody who is challenging. It's no fun to play with somebody who just plays exactly all the same stuff you're playing.”

“I always feel like, when I play with a Cuban musician, that it's really coming directly from the source. To me, that's the thing that inspired me so much about Cuba was that the source is so strong, it's so Afro-centric. Jazz has that, too, but when you incorporate the Afro-Cuban folkloric rhythms like the Guaguancó and the yambu and various mambos, timba, these things really take on a personality in the tune. And he writes with that in mind but at the same time, there's a great beautiful melody, and they're just unique compositions.”

“I'm at the point now where I just feel free. Especially when I work with a good composer like Miguel, I can really go anywhere in his tunes. They're fun to play. They're demanding, they're hard, the chord changes are hard. They're rooted in that foundation. It's not like it's coming from nowhere, it's coming from a very solid force. And having the experience that I've had with Afro-Cuban music, I just thrive in that.”

Bunnett and her husband Larry Cramer have introduced many renowned Cuban musicians to North America through their group Spirits of Havana, including Pedrito Martínez, Dafnis Prieto, Hilario Durán, Elio Villa Franca, Yosvanny Terry, and David Virelles.

However, her background is still in mainstream jazz. “I'm a jazz artist who is adventurous and has jumped into the Afro-Cuban world as being my palette, my paintbox.”

Miguel de Armas  ©Brett Delmage, 2015
Miguel de Armas ©Brett Delmage, 2015
But for de Armas, she said, the Afro-Cuban music is simply “ingrained in him. It's second nature, it's just like walking down the street and having all this stuff happening. And then he's got the tools to discover and investigate jazz music and figure all those harmonies.”

Unlike Canadian music, she said, “no one has to think twice what Cuban music is. It's Africa, it's Europe, it's a mixture of French, it's Spanish, it's everything. It just has this incredible heritage that I don't think that any other country in the world has. So anybody who has studied in the system like Miguel has – he studied all through the classical schools in Cuba, which are amazing.”

“And then he's got everything else. He's got the early dance bands, the history, the Benny Moré's, it's just endless. The history of the Cuban music is almost more vast, in fact I think it might be more dense than American jazz. It goes farther back when you imagine all the components that are in it. So you grow up with that, and walk into the streets, and music is just falling out of everybody's houses. Everybody who goes to Cuba, if they get to Havana, and get out of Varadero, they will see that music is everywhere and so deep in people's blood.”

Proveyer said that Bunnett's presence will ensure that the jazz element is present in the show. “And, of course, the Afro-Cuban element is already innate in Miguel. His way of playing is very percussive because the percussion is already in his head and the way he writes. I think it's going to be, like Jane says, a very beautiful outcome where these two different styles will meet and will create something very beautiful.”

Both Proveyer and Bunnett said they were thinking beyond Saturday to continue the musical collaboration – in Toronto and even perhaps across Canada.

“Because it's going to be great, and yes, we should just keep the project going, right across the country,” Bunnett said.

    – Alayne McGregor

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