Ninety Miles: Live at CubadiscoConcord Picante CPI-34173ADV
Format: CD

Musical Performance: ****1/2
Sound Quality: ****
Overall Enjoyment: ****1/2

When Stefon Harris, David Sanchez, and Christian Scott went to Havana for a week in May 2010, to make a studio recording and give a live performance at the Cubadisco Festival, they brought a film crew along. The BBC picked up the resulting documentary, Ninety Miles, and last year Concord Picante released a CD/DVD package that included footage from the group’s festival performance. The CD of studio recordings was well received, and now Concord has released seven live tracks from the festival as Ninety Miles: Live at Cubadisco.

Harris, Sanchez, and Scott appeared at Cubadisco with two different Cuban rhythm sections, and Ninety Miles is truly a cross-cultural experience. The Cuban musicians bring their affinity for complex, multiple rhythms, while the three Americans contribute compositions and playing that have a firm grounding in bop and later jazz styles. Sanchez’s music often contains a strong Latin jazz influence, but the other two stars are equally comfortable with the music’s rhythms and intensity. As an ensemble and as soloists, all three play with intelligence and conviction.

Harris’s “And This Too Shall Pass” opens with hints of Charles Mingus and of Wayne Shorter’s “Nefertiti.” As the tempo picks up, Edgar Martinez Ochoa’s Latin percussion and, especially, Ruy Adrián López-Nussa’s powerful drum work create an intricate backdrop for the three frontmen. With firm support from pianist Harold López-Nussa, each soloist develops and expands on the main theme, and Harold López-Nussa gets a lengthy feature himself. Although the tune runs over 12 minutes, the players keep pulling out great ideas, and the energy never flags.

Rember Duharte is in the piano seat for Harris’s “Brown Belle Blues,” with drummer Eduardo Barroetabeña and percussionist Jean Roberto San Miguel building an exhilarating polyrhythmic tapestry that Harris weaves through in the opening. The horns harmonize on the melody before going off into the driving solos that make Latin jazz so exciting. Scott’s tone is bright and aggressive, reminiscent of Dizzy Gillespie’s forays into Afro-Cuban music. Duharte’s piano counterpoint to Harris and his splashes of chords drive each soloist to exciting heights.

Duharte wrote “Congo,” a powerful tune that lets him stretch out and show his mettle, and gives Scott another chance for a strong, confident solo. Electric-bassist Osmar Salazar spins out long, fluid lines with a firm attack. Harold López-Nussa’s “La Fiesta Va” closes the disc on a buoyant high note with a piece that is multilayered, melodic, and challenging. Yandy Martinez González, the bassist in López-Nussa’s group, plays double bass and is the rock-solid foundation that centers this and all their performances.

I was surprised to see that Ninety Miles: Live at Cubadisco is a digital recording -- the sound has the spaciousness and warmth of some of my favorite analog live LPs. It gives a clear sense of the dimensions of the Teatro Amadeo Roldán, where it was recorded, and the instruments are well separated even in the busiest sections.

The musicians of both Cuban quartets are astonishingly good, and drive the headliners to remarkable heights, even when measured by their own high standards. Whatever the political differences between the US and Cuba, the fact that these eight players cannot enter our country to share the stage with Harris, Sanchez, and Scott is a sad, sad thing. Don’t miss the chance to hear them together on this exhilarating disc.

. . . Joseph Taylor