The improvisational nature of jazz draws musicians who are responsive to their own inclinations. Take Jane Bunnett. At first preparing for a career as a classical pianist, she visited San Francisco in the mid-70s and was dazzled by the quintet of the great bassist Charles Mingus. Back home in Toronto, she took up jazz flute and soprano saxophone. Now, at age 55, Bunnett is an acclaimed jazz artist and one of the jazz world’s few female sax players. She has also developed a distinctive career interweaving jazz with Afro-Cuban music.
In 1982, while vacationing in Cuba, Bunnett and her husband, the trumpeter Larry Cramer, were smitten by the island’s rhythms and melodies. The two Canadians jammed and bonded with Havana’s virtuoso musicians. Forming their own ensemble of Afro-Cuban musicians in 1991, they released their CD “Spirits of Havana.” Since then, with their ensemble by the same name, the couple has been playing and recording with renowned and emerging musicians from Cuba.
As part of the 2011 Marblehead Jazz Festival, Jane Bunnett & The Spirits of Havana performed Saturday evening in the seaport town’s Unitarian-Universalist Church. During a 90-minute concert with one intermission, the ensemble played Bunnett’s compositions as well as classics by Afro-Cuban composers.
The sextet consisted of Bunnett on soprano saxophone and flute; ensemble co-leader Cramer on trumpet and flugelhorn; Venezuelan Anita Quinto on congas; Havana-trained Elio Villafranca on piano; Cuban percussionist Jorge Najarro on timbales and vocals; and on bass and vocals, Yunior Terry, whose father leads a renowned charanga orchestra in Cuba.
The spine of the group was Villafranca, who, like Bunnett, is schooled in classical jazz as well as Afro-Cuban music. He opened the program with a riffle of dissonant notes, demonstrating the sophisticated, savory musicianship he would sustain throughout the evening. Cramer joined Villafranca’s chordal explorations with nuanced accents on the flugelhorn. As the pianist engaged his entire keyboard with swirling arpeggios, Cramer lent textured accompaniment on his trumpet.
Next, the ensemble played a Bunnett composition that unfolded like a pastiche of jazz and Afro-Cuban musical traditions. On the sax, Bunnett let loose with storms of squawking, shrill squeals to the impressionistic piano improvisations of Villafranca, whose rich, liquid tone complemented her surging solo. They were joined by Najarro’s muscular timbales, a percussive bass solo by Terry and piercing trumpet punctuation by Cramer.
The ensemble slowed its tempo with “Oguere’s Cha,” an African lullaby set to the clave beat — the signature five-stroke rhythm of Afro-Cuban music. A swinging, temperate horn solo by Cramer accompanied Villafranca’s intricate piano filigrees.
Bunnett introduced “Guantanamo,” a sampling of Haitian-Cuban Changüí folk music. Emulating the marimbula, a kind of thumb piano, on his bass, Yunior Terry led the ebullient composition, accompanied by Najarro’s chants and maracas and Quinto’s crackling congas. The entire ensemble joined an exultant crescendo as, backed by Villafranca’s rhythmic keyboard, Bunnett unfurled the song’s sunny melodic refrain on her sax.
The synergies between music of the Latin and North American diaspora have been fertile ground for inventive musicians ever since Dizzy Gillespie’s explosive 1947 concert at Carnegie Hall, when the great bebop trumpeter introduced Cuban conga player Chano Pozo with their newborn anthem, “Manteca.” Whether coming out of a jazz lineage or an Afro-Cuban heritage — or combining both — players bring their unique tastes and gifts to the boundary-crossing endeavor.
This evening’s infectious musical brew was often a mix rather than a blend. Altering a composition’s rhythmic backbone with a few keystrokes, Villafranca would trigger the ensemble’s shift from straight-ahead jazz into an Afro-Cuban groove.
Yet in some selections, the sextet never strayed from a clave rhythmic core. In one composition, Bunnett’s whistling, percuassive flute joined Villafranca’s nimble piano playing to evoke a charanga orchestra, stirring several audience members into the aisles of the small church for an impromptu dance party.
Among the ensemble’s high points was their rendering of “Lágrimas Negras,” a classic by iconic Cuban composer Miguel Matamoros. Backed by Villafranca’s spare vamping, Bunnett explored its sinuous melody on her sax, her cool metallic tone complemented by the piano’s warm timbre. As Bunnett and Villafranca began trading parts, one spinning notes as the other kept the beat, their disparate threads intertwined into a tender improvisation that both embodied and transcended musical traditions.