Big band lives! Irrefutably so if drummer, composer, educator and bandleader Dafnis Prieto and his 17-piece runaway train have anything to do with it.
Stage left: A wall of horns with front-lined reeds, mid-sectioned trombones and trumpets on top. Stage right: A rhythm section including pianist Alex Brown, Rashaan Carter on electric and acoustic bass and a complete nest of percussion, including congas, bongos and an array of shakers, bells and whistles for Luisito Quintera. Prieto’s drum kit was situated center stage.
The band was barely seated before the imagined horn blew and the train bolted from the station. Destination: “Back to the Sunset,” a dazzling live performance of the band’s debut Latin Grammy Award-winning album’s tracks, top to bottom.
The mostly uninitiated and unassuming full-house at the Gaillard Center was shocked by the vibrant opener, “Una Vez Más,” featuring lead trumpeter Alex Norris. The tone was set. The unrelenting energy had everyone on the edge of their seats.
Every member of the band enjoyed a moment to shine. “Out of the Bone” may have begun with a juicy solo bari sax cadenza by Chris Cheek, but the tune’s namesake was evident when Jeff Nelson answered with his dynamite bass trombone solo. A welcomed sight was the band’s lone female member, Sara Jacovino, trading four-measure improvised phrases with her section-mate Alan Ferber.
The mid-set “Danzonish Potpourri,” was a highlight, a stylistic departure from the other compositions that evoked a Havana dance hall with its danzón rhythmic feel.
Cuban-born Prieto pays direct homage to his predecessors and his island of birth: every tune is dedicated to his greatest inspirations, like “Song for Chico,” for fellow Cuban composer Arturo "Chico" O'Farrill, one of the leaders of the Afro-Cuban jazz movement.
Prieto’s all-original compositions are wildly complex — polyrhythmic, multi-metered, densely orchestrated — and the dominant clave, a syncopated rhythmic pattern common to Cuban dance music and Afro-Cuban jazz, is always effervescent and fresh-sounding. His music is steeped in tradition yet brazenly fueled by innovation and always accessible.
Regrettably, the Gaillard Center's sound system did not do the music justice. The lower registers sounded muddy from the side orchestra seats. Some sections, meant to build, were often unbalanced, and dynamic intricacies were lost in the amplified mix. Despite these technical problems, the music shone through.
Prieto, with his boyish smile, emanates joy from his drum throne. He creates the momentum, steers through the rhythmic shifts, pushes and pulls and his bandmates who follow flawlessly. With a humble spirit and unassuming stature, he took to the microphone between selections and endeared himself to the audience with his easy-going voice, naming the tunes and offering compositional dedications. He introduced each member of his band with obvious admiration. The mutual trust and respect was what gave this music life.
“It’s going to be cheaper to buy the CD than to bring us all to your house,” said Prieto. He’s right. Maintaining any big band, including the Holy City’s own Charleston Jazz Orchestra, is a costly venture and risky. If the rise in popularity of big bands, such as Dafnis Prieto’s, and the enthusiasm of the Spoleto Festival audience is any indication, it’s well worth the risk.
As the set drew to a close, Prieto took to the microphone, armed with a pair of traditional wooden claves. Before launching into his closing number, he featured his own off-kit improvisation, scatting as only a drummer could, while keeping his own time. It was a sublime moment of simplicity in its percussive syllabic delivery that further demonstrated his musicianship and dedication.
Befitting the evening, “The Triumphant Journey” closed the concert, provoking warm appreciation from the audience. Bravo to Prieto for deftly keeping the train on the track, paying homage to the masters and innovators of this music while blazing full steam ahead.
Reviewer Leah M. Suarez is a Charleston-based musician.