Nearly 30 years after the picture shown here was taken — of “New Yor-Uba: A Musical Celebration of Cuba in America” at Manhattan’s Public Theater, on December 12, 1983 — pianist Michele Rosewoman is, at last, as I write, gathering a fresh incarnation of her New Yor-Uba ensemble for a recording. It shouldn’t have taken so long, but it’s welcome as ever. Before heading into the studio, New Yor-Uba played last Friday night at Brooklyn’s Roulette. Rosewoman’s concept sounded every bit as fresh as it did three decades ago, and yet more developed and exalted.
When I interviewed Rosewoman for this Wall Street Journal piece, I was taken by the views at her ninth-floor Lower East Side apartment. Out a south-facing window, cars streamed back and forth across the East River via the Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges. Through another, facing north, in the distance, stood the Empire State building. Likewise, Rosewoman’s New Yor-Uba involves an expansive view, connects people and places, and makes tangible reality of towering ambition. Rosewoman has lived in that apartment since 1978, when she moved to New York City and her two musical paths — free-thinking jazz and Afro-Cuban religious tradition — became one.
That union first came via dreams.
“I literally dreamed about these folkloric, spiritually powerful songs in a contemporary jazz setting,” she told me. “I thought, ‘What? How?’ I needed to work it out.”
At Roulette on Friday, her music took many moods and forms. It was, by turns, playful, intense, cacophonous, melodic, meditative, and densely percussive. Rosewoman is a gifted musician whose jazz pianism draws equal influence from, say, Randy Weston and Cecil Taylor, and whose grasp of Afro-Cuban tradition enables her, when she chooses, to make her instrument function like a set of tuned drums. At times on Friday, she traded phrases with percussionists as if one of them. Her 11-piece New Yor-Uba ensemble (the original was 14 pieces) has, in Afro-Cuban fashion, the drums up front. The trio playing batá (two-headed drums used in Yoruba rituals) — Pedrito Martinez, Roman Díaz, and Abraham Rodriguez — sometimes switched to congas and clave. All three sang, as did Rosewoman (and as is required of the West African traditions, transmitted via Cuba, that they draw from). Martinez is a wondrous musician; aside from his mesmerizing abilities as a percussionist, his voice, which manages to be simultaneously searing and comforting, cut through and floated above the Rosewoman’s rich arrangements.
In New Yor-Uba, Martinez essentially stepped into the role once filled by the late Orlando “Puntilla” Ríos, who was a mentor to Rosewoman and a singular inspiration for her New Yor-Uba concept. (“A lot of this repertoire,” she said at one point during Friday’s concert, “was written around Puntilla’s voice and spirit.”) The percussionists, together with Rosewoman, bassist Yunior Terry, and drummer Adam Cruz, formed a rhythm section that never veered from authentic Afro-Cuban expression but also blended these in potent and sometimes surprising ways with pulses of swing and modern jazz.
Rosewoman tapped another one of her mentors for the original New Yor-Uba group, alto saxophonist Oliver Lake. She first met Lake when she was an up-and-coming musician in Oakland; he provided her first gig when she arrived in New York. Lake was one of two original members in Friday night’s ensemble (tuba player and baritone saxophonist Howard Johnson was the other.) Yet the most startling mentor-student relationship showcased at Roulette — and a focal point of New Yor-Uba’s presence — was the bond between Martinez and his mentor, Díaz. There are aspects to this relationship we can’t know, enacted only at religious ceremonies. But what we could sense of the connection was thrilling to behold. Díaz’s talents as a percussionist are evident through tiny inflections and subtle innovations; he can shift a rhythm in ways that seem (and may be) mystical. (Earlier this year, I heard him engage in a very different but no less impressive exchange with drummer Andrew Cyrille, who played a trap set, playing at the Village Vanguard in a band led by Cuban pianist David Virelles.)
Yet this connection was just one element of Rosewoman’s large ensemble, one aspect of what she has marshaled. Martinez’s voice was not the only one that rose above with distinction. Lake played knowing solos and well-place squeals. Here and there, trumpeter Freddie Hendrix played concise and smart solos, sometimes threading a single note through the swirl of music surrounding him. Most of the compositions were named for Yoruba deities, and structured around the specific melodies and rhythms associated with each one. And yet, save for small sections in each piece, these were just elements within a much larger whole. Rosewoman has conceived of large ensemble music that unites great musicians with distinct personalities into a communal voice — much like Mingus or Ellington did — even as she adheres to Afro-Cuban traditions. It sounds bold, swinging, ceremonial, and formal — all at once, in many cases. It strives for and mostly achieves a unity that few musicians could even imagine, and that would be impossible without such diverse and developed players in her band.
New Yor-Uba has maintained its original purpose, yet much has changed since 1983. “The best aspect of what’s different today,” Rosewoman told me, “is that some musicians are fluent in both jazz and Afro-Cuban languages, which opens new possibilities.” These possibilities don’t play out in daring new strategies and bold musical assertions. They serve to deepen the connections this music is meant to reveal, and the mysteries it embraces. And there’s another elevating force: Rosewoman’s continued immersion through the past three decades in Afro-Cuban spiritual practice. As she said in a video (which is full of good history, by the way) on the web page of the Kickstarter campaign that funded her recording project: “This time I feel like I have something I never had — a certain affinity and balance that will allow me to manifest music in the most successful way possible.”
Friday at Roulette, that feeling seemed palpable. Come September, it’s likely to be captured on CD.