©Brett Delmage, 2018
Dánae Olano ©Brett Delmage, 2018

Dánae Olano Trio
Live @ Record Runner
Record Runner Rehearsal Studios
Wednesday, February 21, 2018 – 8 p.m.

View photos by Brett Delmage of this performance

Cuban pianist Dánae Olano loves the rich musical heritage of her native land, and is on a quest to introduce audiences to its many composers and styles, from the 19th century onwards.

There are many Cuban composers that even Cubans don't know about, she told an Ottawa audience Wednesday night. She wants to take that music, “which is rich, and make some arrangements and put it in a way that everybody will get the modern flavour, with jazz and with the rhythms that are right now in the Cuban scene.”

It's a project she's been working on for the last year, and she gave it its Ottawa debut in a vibrant and well-received concert at Record Runner Rehearsal Studios. Accompanying her were two Ottawa musicians who have a great deal of experience with Afro-Cuban jazz: Marc Decho on six-string electric bass and Frank Martinez on drums. Decho has played in Miguel de Armas' Latin Jazz Quartet for many years. Martinez, like Olano, is from Havana, Cuba, and both had much the same musical education – including attending the same elementary school and the same university, Cuba's Instituto Superior de Arte (ISA), at the same time.

Olano is best known here as a founding member of Maqueque, a group created and led by Canadian saxophonist Jane Bunnett in order to celebrate the talent of Cuba's female jazz musicians. Since it was formed in 2013, that group has toured extensively across the U.S., Canada, and Australia. It won a JUNO in 2015 and was nominated for a Grammy in 2017. While Maqueque is going strong – it has another U.S. tour in March – its members are trying out their own projects as well.

That includes Olano. The 25-year-old has performed her Cuban piano concert with Toronto musicians twice: last May and this month. However, the Ottawa show came out of a chance meeting she had with Decho, when he was performing in Toronto last fall with de Armas. Olano thanked Decho at this show: “He's responsible for this happening. He said, let's do something together in Ottawa, and here I am!”

The Toronto shows also included Olano playing a solo set of Cuban piano music. This show, however, was strictly the trio. In two hour-long sets, they played a mixture of old and new Cuban music, about half of which were her own compositions.

They began with Olano's “Canto a Eleguá”, which was dedicated to the saint in the Cuban Santería religion “who opens the old ways”. Opening with classically-influenced solo piano, it was a Romantic piece with dramatic flourishes and considerable interplay among the trio.

“Quirino Con Su Tre” and “Sóngoro Cosongo” are both traditional Cuban songs, and the trio gave them inviting renditions. The trio played the first as a sweet samba, and the second as an upbeat piece with room for her and Decho to create accented and dynamic variations on the folkloric melody.

“Mother” (dedicated to Olano's mother) began as a classic jazz piano trio piece, thoughtful and with dignity, and added shimmering Cuban rhythms as it developed before ending with a few shining notes. I also enjoyed Olano's “Good Moments”, its hard-edged drum opening and reverberating cymbal taps adding energy under the joyous piano lines.

Frank Emilio Flynn was a 20th-century Cuban pianist, who combined traditional Cuban bolero with U.S. jazz to create “filin”. Despite being blind, he had a long career and helped pioneer small-ensemble Cuban jazz – and was finally recognized in the U.S. when he was in his 70s. Olano arranged his song, “Tony y Jesusito”, as a fluid ballad, her heartfelt piano underlined by atmospheric cymbals.

She also featured Emilio Morales' homage to Flynn, “Homenaje a Frank Emilio”, in a strongly groove-based interpretation. Over the powerful Afro-Cuban rhythms, she and Decho traded and shared the lead, both contributing bright melodies dancing on top. The tune finished with a cymbal flourish from Martinez and shared enjoyment from all.

Roberto Carlos "Cucurucho" Valdés is a modern Cuban pianist and composer, a former member of Los Van Van, and the nephew of Chucho Valdés. His “Pequeño Son” was given an intense workout – beginning quietly but developing into a fantasia of sparkling glissandos and insistent polyrhythms, and ending in a flat-out sprint. The audience strongly applauded.

Olano premiered one piece at the show, “Reencuentro” (Reunion); she explained that she'd only written this tune in the last month and that this was its first public outing. When Decho unfolded its sheet music, he laughingly pretended dismay as its four pages sprawled over both ends of his music stand (and at one point partway through the tune, slithered right off). The tune counterpointed different Cuban rhythms, with dramatic and anthemic passages, rippling piano and vibrating bass lines, and underneath Martinez's kinetic drums driving the piece forward. The result: a memorable ensemble effort that was warmly received by the audience.

A “descarga” is a Cuban jam session, including variations on many genres of Cuban music, and many Cuban musicians have created tunes based on that mixture. Olano closed the concert with her own “Descarga in G”, a flowing ballad which showcased a variety of Afro-Cuban rhythms, as well as her expressive and dynamic piano playing in the high-energy piece.

I'd heard Olano play twice with Maqueque, and enjoyed her virtuosic piano playing and how well she contributed to the group's sound. Similarly, I'd heard Decho and Martinez before with de Armas and knew how well they played. But in the trio's first time playing together, I was impressed with their energy, enthusiasm, and excellent ensemble playing.

I could see around me how much the audience was engaged by the music. Olano made an effort to explain the pieces to listeners both during the concert and one-on-one during the set break, which helped since these were not tunes they would been familiar with. But the music itself and the trio's performance was really what won over the crowd: intricate yet approachable, and a delight to listen to.

View photos by Brett Delmage of this performance

Set list

Set 1:

  1. Canto a Eleguá [Dánae Olano]
  2. Quirino Con Su Tre [arranged by Eliseo Grenet]
  3. Sóngoro Cosongo [arranged by Eliseo Grenet]
  4. Mother [Dánae Olano]
  5. Good Moments [Dánae Olano]
  6. Mary [Dánae Olano]

Set 2:

  1. Tony y Jesusito [Frank Emilio Flynn, arranged by Dánae Olano]
  2. Pequeño Son [Roberto Carlos "Cucurucho" Valdes]
  3. Homenaje a Frank Emilio [Emilio Morales]
  4. Reencuentro [Dánae Olano]
  5. Descarga in G [Dánae Olano]

Read our previous articles about Maqueque and Dánae Olano: