Music Reviews


This is FRESH AIR. Michele Rosewoman grew up in the Bay Area playing piano from childhood and congas from her teens. After moving to New York in the late 1970s, she began making music in two areas: modern jazz and traditional Cuban music. Before long, she started combining the two in her New Yor-Uba band. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews that band's very belated debut.


NEW YOR-UBA: (Singing in foreign language)

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Cuban rhythms influenced jazz from the very beginning. When old Jelly Roll Morton talked about how jazz needed tinges of Spanish, he illustrated his point with a Cuban tresillo beat, an uneven, three-note grouping that informs jazz's loping swing feel. The related delayed second beat habanero rhythm made the St. Louis blues a hit, and is behind everything from the tango to booting rock and roll sax riffs.

You can look at Michele Rosewoman's New Yor-Uba band as reuniting cousins who drifted apart, jazz and folkloric Cuban music with its own family ties to the slave coast of West Africa.


YOR-UBA: (Singing in foreign language)

WHITEHEAD: Pianist Michele Rosewoman, from her double album "New Yor-Uba: A Musical Celebration of Cuba in America." It comes 30 years after she assembled her first New Yor-Uba band. The current one is a jazz octet, plus a trio of Cuban singers and bata drummers - bata, the sacred double-headed hand drums of the Yoruban people.

Two charter New Yor-Ubans are still around: Oliver Lake on saxophones and flute, and Howard Johnson on baritone sax and tuba. A typical Latin jazz band piles on the high trumpets. Rosewoman favors rich saxophones and low brass, and maybe a funky bottom.


WHITEHEAD: On most pieces for the New Yor-Uba band, Michele Rosewoman wraps her compositions around Yoruban or Dahomeyan devotional chants and drum patterns. They give the music a spiritual resonance across centuries and continents. Rosewoman treats those materials with care. The sung prayers appear in the prescribed order, and have their own integrity within the band's performance.


YOR-UBA: (Singing in foreign language)

WHITEHEAD: The lead vocalist is Pedrito Martinez, whose singing opens a window on another time. Michele Rosewoman is mindful the traditions she bridges have different goals. Jazz is progressive, keeps developing its own language. West African religious music has survived for centuries in Cuba through careful and often covert preservation. Rosewoman and her very aware musicians layer jazz phrasing and harmony over those ancient rhythms and do justice to both traditions.

It's like inventing Afro-Cuban jazz and sacred concerts all over again.


YOR-UBA: (Singing in foreign language)

GROSS: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure, Down Beat, and eMusic, and is the author of "Why Jazz?" He reviewed "A Celebration of Cuba in America," the new album by Michele Rosewoman and her New Yor-Uba band.

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