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Ninety Miles celebrates Cuba's jazz link

Band members Stefon Harris, David Sánchez and Christian Scott are part of Cuban-themed show Wednesday at the Hollywood Bowl.

August 23, 2011|By Reed Johnson, Los Angeles Times
  • Ninety Miles members Stefon Harris, David Sanchez and Christian Scott.
Ninety Miles members Stefon Harris, David Sanchez and Christian Scott. (Devin DeHaven )

You might think that a jazz ensemble project named Ninety Miles was paying tribute, in plural, to a genius trumpeter with the last name of Davis.

In fact, its members — Stefon Harris (vibraphone and marimba), David Sánchez (saxophone) and Christian Scott (trumpet), who'll perform Wednesday night at the Hollywood Bowl — take their collective moniker from a very different source. But it's a source, like Miles Davis, whose influence permeates the jazz vernacular of the Americas, and the world beyond.

Ninety Miles, as any resident of Miami's Little Havana knows, is the distance separating the Florida Keys from Cuba. It's a gap long enough to keep two peoples apart — for the time being, anyway. But it's hardly sufficient to have kept their musical traditions from cross-pollinating as they've done for centuries, despite periodic interventions by Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders, Cold War plotters and the like.

Indeed, one thing that struck Harris during the New York-based musicians' weeklong recording sessions with a group of Cuban counterparts last summer in Havana was how much his hosts knew about the supposedly embargoed popular culture of their visitors.

"They knew who we were. They had access to our records," Harris, a four-time Grammy Award nominee with six Blue Note Records CDs on his resume, said during a phone interview last week. "I think our access to Cuba is more limited than their access to us."

If only for one night, the Bowl's Cuba-themed show will attempt to reverse that half-century-old geopolitical paradigm. The program, which also includes headliners Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club, featuring Omara Portuondo, and Arturo Sandoval with Natalie Cole and the L.A. All Star Big Band, was conceived as a multimedia event that will include a visual element, courtesy of the Getty Museum, that will roughly parallel the multi-generational musical artists appearing onstage.

In May, the Getty simultaneously opened three photography shows that together depict a broad sweep of Cuban history, from the 1930s to the near-present. Part one of the Getty's triptych, which will be up through Oct. 2, is a selection of the Havana urbanscapes and portraits made by Walker Evans in 1933. Evans was ostensibly on assignment to make photos for another journalist's expose about Cuba's oppressive inequality. Instead, he turned his camera's eye on Havana's elegiac architecture and its stylish inhabitants, creating an indelible montage of the city.

Another Getty exhibition showcases the work of three contemporary photographers: Virginia Beahan, Alex Harris and the Russian-born Alexey Titarenko. A third show, which won't be represented in the Bowl's program, consists of images of the Cuban revolution and its leader Fidel Castro's early years in power.

At the Bowl, two sets of screens, including the 20-foot wide, 15-foot high IMAG screens on each side of the stage, will show images of the performers, while five small plasma screens arrayed around the stage will depict pictures from the two Getty exhibitions.

"After seeing the Getty exhibition, I wanted to get that kind of gallery effect," said Laura Connelly, director of presentations for the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl and the Walt Disney Concert Hall. But care will be taken to keep the pictures from upstaging the performers, she added.

Like the Buena Vista Social Club, the result of a groundbreaking collaboration between the L.A.-born blues-rock guitarist-composer Ry Cooder and an all-star cast of mainly elderly but still brilliant Cuban musicians, the Ninety Miles Project paired Harris and his colleagues with young Cuban musicians such as the pianists Rember Duharte and Harold López-Nussa. Like its predecessor, the latter project also yielded both a CD and a documentary film.

Besides the lengthy negotiation process that allowed the U.S. musicians to travel to Cuba, there were a few other hurdles to clear before art-making could commence. Harris said that after a futile search for a vibraphone in Havana, he was eventually directed to a young lady who produced an antique model such as the kind Lionel Hampton might've played.

That turned out to be an unexpected boon. "It was almost like playing an alto saxophone," Harris said. "It had a very bright sound, and I think it was able to pull things out of my instrument that I don't think I would have otherwise."

Although none of the Cubans spoke much English, and only Sánchez and Harris speak Spanish, communication wasn't a problem. As soon as the players all sat down and started jamming together, Harris said, "I understood exactly where these Cuban musicians were coming from."

He and his U.S. colleagues quickly concluded that their new bandmates were "less motivated by economics and more motivated by the passion of what they were doing," Harris continued. "The Cuban musicians were there because they had something to say."

The Bowl program arrives toward the end of a year in which Cuban musicians, dancers, film makers and other artists have been traveling to the United States in greater numbers than they have since visa restrictions imposed after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks lowered a curtain on such exchanges.

Like most of those other cultural activities, Wednesday's concert is steering well clear of politics. But the cultural politics of current U.S.-Cuba relations may be getting clearer, Harris suggested.

"Art is usually a step ahead of whatever's going to happen," he said. "The fact that it's starting to open up through art is a beautiful sign."

reed.johnson@latimes.com

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