Afro-Cuban Jam


In Dizzy Gillespie’s autobiography, To Be or Not to Bop, someone asked Chano Pozo, the Black Cuban conguero whose ’40s collaborations with the trumpeter gave birth to modern Latin jazz, how he and Gillespie communicated. “Dizzy no speak Spanish and I no speak English,” he replied. “But we both speak African.” For more than six decades, North Americans and Latinos have been speaking African with a New World accent through the descarga—the Afro-Cuban jam session. For American musicians, as evidenced most recently by Chesky’s The Body Acoustic project, it’s the essence of Latin jazz.

Translated from the Spanish, the word has several meanings: to discharge, disembark, unload, or set off. The descarga is a jazz-influenced vehicle for improvisation. The leader calls the tune, the downbeat is given, the rhythm section sets the groove, and the soloists take their turns. But instead of riffs, the bassist and the pianist play repeating, syncopated figures called tumbaos, or the pianist working alone contributes ostinato-like montunos, which are often elaborated in passages that are Caribbean cousins of the break. Everywhere the clave—the Cuban-born five-note pattern that is the heartbeat of Latin music—is successfully married to the Negroidal rhythmic gravity we call swing. In his authoritative Latin Jazz: The First of the Fusions, John Storm Roberts writes: “[D]escargas occupy a position midway between salsa and Latin jazz, because they tend to preserve the Cuban vocals and structures yet contain far more jazz soloing than does salsa.”

Though the descarga came of age in Cuba, it was born in America. According to Max Salazar of Latin Beat magazine, it first surfaced with the legendary bandleader Machito’s live gigs in Manhattan in the ’40s. In 1952, label owner and impresario Norman Granz traveled to Havana and recorded Ramón “Bebo” Valdés, the impossibly gifted pianist-composer and bandleader at Havana’s mob-deep Tropicana nightclub. That 10-inch disc, which Valdés released on Mercury under the moniker Andre’s All-Stars, featured the first recorded descarga, Valdés’s zesty Afro number “Con Poco Coco.” But five years later, Valdés’s friend, bassist Israel “Cachao” López, an innovator in Cuban danzón who later codified the mambo most musicians attribute to Arsenio Rodríguez, elevated the idiom with the release of Descargas en Miniatura, Part 1, which peaked with the influential “Guajeo de Saxos” and “Malanga Amarilla” and helped turn timbalero Guillermo “Barrettico” Barretto and percussionist Tata Guines into legends. Valdés left his homeland after Castro came into power in 1959 and relocated to Sweden. Cachao also fled, making a long career for himself entertaining fellow émigrés in Miami, where in the ’90s he was rediscovered by actor Andy Garcia. Garcia produced the Cachao documentary Como Su Ritmo No Hay Dos and two Crescent Moon releases, Master Sessions Vol. 1 and Master Sessions Vol. 2. Valdés and Cachao were reunited in Fernando Trueba’s 2001 film, Calle 54.

The Body Acoustic is an all-star date led by pianist-proprietor David Chesky. Though the quintet is marketed as “a cerebral jam band,” it owes more to such recordings as Eric Dolphy’s Latin Jazz Quintet, Herbie Hancock’s Inventions and Dimensions, and Don Grolnick’s Medianoche than to Phish. The pianist, who wrote all eight compositions, stays out of the way except for a few spare solos. With no trap drummer present, Giovanni Hidalgo’s light-speed conga configurations provide the processional pulsations, which are augmented by Andy Gonzalez’s deep-toned, in-the-pocket basslines. Layered over the groove are Randy Brecker’s Miles-style, Harmon-muted trumpet tones and Bob Mintzer’s oblique, dark-mattered bass clarinet. Imbued with Cuban clave, “New York Descargas,” “Club Descarga,” and the bluesy “N.Y. Cool” are articulate, uptempo pieces zip-coded with a Nuyorican address. This contemporary descarga proves that Havana and Harlem are still only a jam session apart, and that jazz musicians of every provenance can participate in the form’s Pan-American groove.