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On a recent Wednesday night, 19 musicians fit snugly into the far end of the FB Lounge on 106th Street, just off Third Avenue in Harlem. Trombone slides abutted one wall; a pianist backed up against another. Congas and bongos spilled offstage. But once swept into full force, as they were on "57th Street Mambo," the musicians issued a collective sound that challenged the room's dimensions in other ways. The dense cross-hatch of Afro-Cuban rhythms, half-time funk, modern-jazz harmonies, and at least a half-dozen other reference points stretched body and mind, too—or at least called both to attention.
Bobby Sanabria's big band hits hard, fast, and with clear purpose. "We play Cuban music with a New York attitude, all dedicated to the community that has been keeping this music alive for more than half a century," the drummer explains between songs, seated front and center before his expansive kit. He means this neighborhood, where the supper club run by brothers Roberto and Jorge Ayala is a welcome offshoot of their La Fonda Boricua restaurant across the street. But he also means the farther-flung community throughout New York, which includes many who, like Sanabria and the Ayalas, are of Puerto Rican descent, and who've keyed moments of cross-cultural preservation and innovation through Afro-Cuban sounds.
"This music has gone underground," Sanabria laments later, between sets. "But I remember when there were 30 different clubs in this city where you could go and hear some mixture of Afro-Cuban tradition and New York jazz." Sanabria, who grew up in the Fort Apache section of the South Bronx, found inspiration back then from such standard-bearing first-generation players as Tito Puente and trumpeter Mario Bauzá. Sanabria teaches at both the Manhattan School of Music and the New School, and he treats the stage as one more classroom: He pauses halfway through one set to acknowledge the name chosen by Bauzá and his brother-in-law, singer and frontman Frank "Machito" Grillo, for their legendary orchestra: Afro-Cubans. "That was an early nod to Africa," he notes, "before it was in fashion." Tonight, Sanabria's own nod is overt and visible: In place of his usual jacket and tie, he wears a black T-shirt emblazoned with, in red, a Kongo cross and the phrase Abre/Kuta/Güiri/Mambo—Kikongo for, very liberally interpreted, "Word up."
The whole band wears the shirts. So does Ned Sublette, the musician and writer holding court at a table nearby, as is his custom nearly every Wednesday night, surrounded by stacks of the T-shirts he designed and copies of his authoritative book, Cuba and Its Music. Both are expressions of what Sublette calls "postmamboism"—"a portable theory that places music at the center of understanding" and "begins with the study of African diaspora musics," as he has explained in a post on BoingBoing.net. "Not deconstruction, not postcolonialism, not subaltern studies, not semiotics itself can boast of a triumph to rival the Postmamboism T-shirt," Sublette writes me in an e-mail.
For Sanabria, the fashion statement just fits: "It means what we say musically: This has deep roots, and it calls for an open mind."
This band also requires knowledgeable and gifted musicians, including at least two university professors, some half-dozen of their current and former students, and several veterans of what Sanabria calls "the salsa and jazz wars." Percussionist Obanilu Allende's power and agility, especially on the baril de bomba, stand out, as does trumpeter Shareef Clayton's pithy, bebop-inflected solos. These musicians' formidable gifts range widely, as do their ages: In March, 19-year-old Christian Sands sat in ably on piano, while Hiram "El Pavo" Remon, 79, handled the maracas with devastating sensitivity.
Before the previous week's gig, the band worked its way through "Worstward Ho," a composition by band member Chris Washburne based on a Samuel Beckett story. ("Disintegrate into nothingness," read one of the chart's marks.) Later, the group performed another of his tunes, "Pink," which punctuates a Cuban son montuno with brass hits worthy of Parliament. "This band is the best workshop I can imagine for my tunes," says the trombonist, a tenured Columbia University professor who has played on the New York scene for nearly 20 years. "Bobby is a torch-bearer in this tradition, but he's not a historicist. I can write stuff for this band that pushes the limits."
That's one reason he, like his bandmates, signed on for a guarantee of roughly 30 bucks a man. "We're hanging in there," Sanabria says of the Wednesday-night gig. He's begun alternating big-band weeks with smaller ensembles, including his excellent quartet and a nine-piece outfit, Ascensión. "We need to develop a wider audience and an attitude in the jazz community that the club is a 'Class A' jazz room. It's hard for people to fathom that when they see the address."
Sanabria's point is supported by the FB's well-tuned piano, effective sound system, and good food. And unlike the mofongo, ubiquitous wherever Puerto Rican cuisine is showcased, what Sanabria's big band serves up is unique. Despite its references—to an earlier Manhattan moment, to pasts in Cuba and Africa—this is a forward-thinking ensemble of the highest order. May they march on in the barrio.