Jane Bunnett & Maqueque Fosters Connection Between Cuban Music, Jazz

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Reedist Jane Bunnett’s first-hand observations of the Havana jazz scene spurred the foundation of Maqueque, a collaborative six-piece ensemble.

(Photo: Rick McGinnis)

It’s the first day of September, and a chill off Lake Ontario has reduced the crowds around Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre to a trickle. But it’s plenty hot inside the Bill Boyle Artport’s Brigantine Room, where Jane Bunnett & Maqueque are in the second of three kinetic sets.

At the moment, they’re working their way through the title track from their third album, On Firm Ground/Tierra Firme (Linus), a funky, minor-key tune that, in its recorded version, nicely balances the melodic discipline of Cuban son with the rhythmic and harmonic elaboration of jazz.

Onstage, however, the tune has been hijacked by the rhythm section, which turns the syncopated refrain into a monster clavé, not only fueling lengthy solos from soprano saxophonist Bunnett, pianist Dánae Olano and vocalist Joanna Majoko, but also igniting several layers of rhythmic interplay among drummer Yissy García, conguera Mary Paz and bassist Tailin Marrero. At a certain point, it’s as if the riff departs the song and becomes the basis for lengthy and spirited improvisation that lifts both band and audience to a higher plane.

The next day, Bunnett reflected on the show. “I think that’s the added ingredient of having Joanna in the group,” she said, regarding the band’s invigorated dynamism. Bunnett and the other five musicians were sitting in the living room of the comfortable Victorian she and her spouse—trumpeter and producer Larry Cramer—own in the Parkdale section of Toronto. “Even though we’re rooted in Cuban music, my foundation is jazz. The same with Joanna,” she said, referring to the band’s newest member, who was discovered through a recording of her singing along to Charlie Parker solos.

“Even though we’re Afro-Cuban, we are a jazz group, and I want to always keep that in mind, because I think that’s the way the group will develop and become more unique, and be able to make even a stronger statement with what we’re doing.”

Making a statement was, to some extent, Bunnett’s original intention with the band, as she assembled Maqueque partially to demonstrate that women in the Cuban jazz scene weren’t getting the attention they deserved.

“For about 35 years, Larry and I had been working with Cuban musicians that were guys,” she explains. “Pedrito Martinez and Dafnis Prieto, Francisco Mela, David Virelles ... there’s a long list.

“And then, later, I was going into the conservatories with Larry, and we were taking instruments.” Those efforts were done through a charity called Spirit of Music, which distributed and repaired instruments for students in Cuba’s music conservatories. With each visit, Bunnett noticed the same thing: “Most of the programs had more women than guys. But I was never seeing women out on the scene. I kept talking about it, and Larry finally said, ‘Why don’t you do a project?’”

With the help of singer Daymé Arocena, who became a founding member of Maqueque, Bunnett looked at numerous candidates before narrowing her list down to players “who I thought had jazz skills coming along. And then we went down to Cuba to meet the [musicians] I felt were going to [possibly start] this group.”

Despite frustrating rehearsals in a rented hall that kept losing its electricity, eventually the band came together in the studio, and everything clicked. Its self-titled debut on Justin Time topped the category Jazz Album of the Year–Group at the 2015 Juno Awards.

“It was like, ‘Hey, maybe there is something here,’” Bunnett recalled. “And then we embarked on our first Canadian tour, with the original group.”

After the ensemble recorded its acclaimed 2016 sophomore album, Oddara (Linus), and hit the road yet again, Arocena left the ranks to pursue a solo career. She returned as a guest contributor to On Firm Ground/Tierra Firme and composed the track “Mystery Of Jane’s House.” The album’s other guests are singer Melvis Santa and vocalist/steel guitar player Nikki D Brown.

Touring has turned out to be an essential element in Maqueque’s development. “A lot of bands, they go out just a couple times a year, and then they all go off and do their own things,” Bunnett said. “We’ve really put a lot of roadwork in now, but we have also, as a group, spent a lot of time in the house here because we have to wait for the visas.”

Ah, yes, the visas. Whereas Canada has maintained diplomatic relations with Cuba for decades, relations between the United States and Cuba have been difficult, if not hostile, in the decades since Fidel Castro’s forces overthrew Fulgencio Batista in 1959. There was a brief thaw under President Barack Obama’s administration, resulting in easier passage of people and goods between the two countries, but the Trump administration undid that—and then some.

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