Zaccai Curtis pays forward the lineage of Afro-Cuban Jazz on Cubop Lives!, new album out on May 10 via Truth Revolution Recording Collective

Zaccai Curtis is a multi-faceted pianist for whom every side of his work gleams. Equal parts performer, composer, educator, and producer, Curtis has won himself esteem in each area as he vibrantly showcases his mastery of both the Jazz and Afro-Cuban Jazz lineages. As a composer, Curtis is a three-time ASCAP Young Jazz Composer winner, recipient of the Connecticut Commission on Tourism’s Artist Fellowship Grant and the Chamber Music America “New Jazz Works” grant. As a performer, Curtis has twice been selected for the Jazz Ambassador program by the US Department of State, and in 2020 was voted as a “Rising Star” in the DownBeat Critics’ Poll. As an educator, Curtis holds professor positions at the University of Hartford and the University of Rhode Island, and as a producer, Curtis holds a GRAMMY nomination for his work on Entre Colegas by Andy González. Now, after honing his craftsmanship in every area of musicianship, Curtis embarks on a journey near and dear to his heart with Cubop Lives!, an album that stands as the culmination of his work as a composer/arranger, performer, and educator steeped in the Afro-Cuban Jazz tradition. 

Cubop Lives! is an album born from a passion of the heart. As a musician who is so deeply steeped in the Jazz and Bebop tradition and so vivaciously immersed in the worlds of Afro-Cuban Jazz, Curtis found himself wanting to pay homage to the great musicians in whose steps he has trod who brought together the distinct fusion of these musical cultures. “I wanted to make a period piece album that brought a new perspective to an older style – one that wasn’t covered the way I thought it could be,” Curtis says. “Cubop Lives! points out the earliest of “jazz fusion” and the combination of cultures that related to each other socially, politically and, of course, musically.”  Curtis’s love for the genres led not only to his meticulous curation of the pieces – both historic and original – but to the intentional selection of the band itself. “It takes musicians that have mastered their craft as well as understand complex jazz concepts and form,” Curtis says. “There are only a handful of people that can pull off this style of music as they do. These arrangements were developed to highlight each individual’s unique voice.” The album’s personnel list includes a cast of heavy-hitters within the world of Afro-Cuban Jazz: Willie Martinez (drums, voice, timbales), Camilo Molina (percussion), Reinaldo De Jesus (percussion, drums), and bandleader’s brother, Luques Curtis (bass)

The album’s title holds manifold meaning as it pays tribute to the music that has come before it. “Cubop” refers to the cultural and musical fusion of Cuban Music with Bebop. By referencing Cubop in the title, Curtis has deliberately aligned the album to acknowledge and denote the music of luminaries such as Machito and his Afro-Cubans, Dizzy Gillespie, Mario Bauzá and Chano Pozo. The implication of the title, then, states that the influence of these trailblazers permeates the music of the present. As a whole, the phrase Cubop Lives! is also an inherent reference to the influence of Charlie Parker by referencing the phrase “Bird Lives!”, and moreover the influence of Jackie McLean, who composed the famous piece of that title. McLean himself was one of Curtis’s major influences and mentors. With such a layered meaning in the worlds of both Bebop and Afro-Cuban music, it is the perfect phrase to encapsulate the goals of Curtis’s project.

 Musically, Curtis leans into what he describes as “two sides of the same coin” within Afro-Cuban jazz: Instrumental Mambo Jazz (a phrase coined by Eddie Palmieri), and Cubop. The former fuses jazz melodies and improvisation with Mambo music, and was spearheaded in the 1940s by Mario Bauzá, the musical director of the ensemble Machito and his Afro-Cubans. Curtis delineates Cubop as “bebop composition with Afro-Cuban elements in the rhythm section,” or at least veers “more toward the bebop side” of the musical fusion. 

The pieces on this album, whether composed or arranged by Curtis, make clear the lineage of artistry from which he draws his inspiration. One of the most notable ways he does this is through the “Noro Morales Suite”, a collection of four pieces by the great Puerto Rican pianist, Noro Morales. The suite begins with “Maria Cervantes” and continues with “Oye Men”, before going into “Stromboli” and concluding with “Rumbambola”. “I’m not sure if there is another homage album to Noro, but I’m happy to acknowledge him on this recording,” Curtis says. “His contribution to Latin Jazz is vast and his style and music deserve to be explored more.” One of the most intriguing arrangements on Cubop Lives! is that of Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag”. As Curtis was revisiting this Ragtime standard, he noticed a striking number of correlations and similarities to contemporary Afro-Cuban piano playing. The way Joplin’s right-hand part is “broken” in octaves, striking single notes or chord tones in the upper reaches strongly resembles how the pianist plays a montuno in Cuban music. The entire piece is compatible with a clave rhythm, and as a result, Curtis’s arrangement leaves the right-hand part almost entirely unaltered from Joplin’s original, only making some adjustments to the left-hand part to add more of the “Spanish Tinge” that Jelly Roll Morton talked about. “There are so many more connections with ‘Latin’ music in this piece,” Curtis says. “The chord changes, root movement, pianistic triadic arrangement and even the ending of some of the sections may have elements that are commonly used in Afro-Cuban Music. Is it possible that the technique for playing a guajeo is linked with the technique in Ragtime?” 

In addition to arrangements, the album also features three of Curtis’s compositions, entitled “Let’s Do It Again”, “Earl”, and “Black Rice”. The former is a mambo, originally recorded in 2016 with a horn section. Here, the tune exclusively features a rhythm section and deeply leans into bebop sensibilities with twists and turns of the chord changes. “Earl” pays tribute to Bud Powell, Curtis’s all-time favorite pianist and “a true innovator in Afro-Cuban Jazz.” Lastly, “Black Rice” is a blues, but one that can be played either as a straight-ahead swing tune or locked into a clave. For this recording, Curtis chose the latter.

Cubop Lives! Strikes a resounding chord with its listeners as it revitalizes an often unvisited section of Jazz history that has dramatically shaped the landscape of Jazz and creative music ever since its inception in the 1940s. By bringing new life to the depth of the music from this time, while simultaneously pairing it with new music that is so stoically rooted in this tradition, Curtis proves the mantra his title states to be utterly and undyingly true: Cubop Lives!

Cubop Lives! releases May 10th, 2024 on Truth Revolution Recording Collective.

 

Tracklist: 

  1. Earl 3:21
  2. Black Rice 5:01
  3.  52nd Street 3:22
  4. When I Fall IN Love 5:00
  5. Cuban Fantasy 4:49
  6. Woody And You  4:32
  7. Someday My Prince Will Come 7:07
  8. Let’s Do It Again 4:53
  9. Jazzin’ 3:58
  10. Solo Piano 4:07
  11. Oye Men 2:30
  12. Stromboli 3:13
  13. Rumbambola 4:09
  14. Maple Leaf Rag 5:53
  15. Contour 2:53
  16. Miners Holiday 3:14
  17. Moose 4:08

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