Home Masthead Jane Bunnett: Anatomy of a Modern Genius

Jane Bunnett: Anatomy of a Modern Genius

Jane Bunnett 4
Hilario Durán, Jane Bunnett. Photo credit: Danilo Navas

The Jane Bunnett expedition is now approaching critical mass. She is now deep inside the divination system of Cuba, placating the muses that inhabit Chamalongo (EMI Canada, 1998)… Her eponymous album is like a Santa Maria or a Santa Clara berthing by the shoreline of dense and mysterious island. As the music and the ritual takes over, you begin to find acceptance and freedom of the spirit.


The cauldron of clay is bubbling over… ‘Lucero,’ messenger of the crossroads and guardian of the gods announces the arrival of ‘Mama Chola,’ ruler of the river, love and beauty and ‘Tiembla Tierra,’ creator of the earth, mankind and ruler of the universe… Merceditas Valdés presides as medium and Jane Bunnett raises sax and flute to lips, to pay homage to the ‘Santeria…’ This record has the same effect and power as did Pharoah Sanders’ when he journeyed to Essaouria, Morocco to play with Maleem Mahmoud Ghania and the Gnawas on the Laswell-produced Trance of the Seven Colors (Axiom, 1994). But it is also the beginning of a journey that will shortly take Jane Bunnett, Larry Cramer and a handful of faithful on a journey deep into the music of Cuba as she and Cramer let it wash over them and create a new lexicon in jazz. For them, this is both a leap of faith and an expression of the joy of discovery. This is what makes the music so flawless—the fact that there is nothing contrived about it. It is a collision of cultures where Jane Bunnett remains front and center, the proverbial Isaac to Cuba’s Abraham!

Chamalongo is both ritual and joyful. It traces a spiritual journey beginning in the Santos Suárez area of Havana and gradually proceeding deeper into uncharted territory. It has the inimitable Merceditas as guiding spirit and also featured El Gato and El Goyo, Cuban folkloric singers who lead, with praise, the spiritual and musical expedition into the heart of Cuba. Hilario Durán sparkles on “Yambú,” Frank Emilio boggles the mind on “Descarga a la Hindemith,” and Merceditas Valdés wakes up the spirit world joyously in “Inolvidable,” “Amor Por Ti,” and “Coco,” while the spirit of “Chamalongo” hovers throughout… Jane Bunnett sets sax and flute ablaze as she runs down the ritual like the expert and honorary Cuban that she is, holding her own among Tata Güines, Frank Emilio Flynn and the battery of musicians. It is as if music like Latin worship is second nature to Jane Bunnett and Larry Cramer now.

Ritmo+SoulDeeply immersed in their Cuban expedition, Jane Bunnett and Larry Cramer pull it all together in a classic session that mirrors the success of the Miles Davis/Gil Evans collaboration. In the album Ritmo+Soul (EMI Canada, 2000) the folkloric and jazz lexicons come together in a sunburst of music. The intensity of the record is set from the first track, “Santos Suárez…” ‘a cantar a Eleguá/a Bailar pachanga,’ as the lyric states in praise of the presiding spirit. Jane Bunnett’s saxophone and flute appear to be molded extensions of her body. The batá drums speak to as if inseparable from the woodwinds and piano… Jane Bunnett is molten and spreads like mercury over the music gathering it and taking it to a higher level, especially on “Joyful Noise,” and “3 Voices One Spirit.” Larry Cramer shines once again, proving that less is more and that he too is a force to be reckoned with. While Dean Bowman and El Gato provide soul stirring, worshipful, swinging and joyful vocalastics as Dafnis Prieto (drums) and Roberto Occhipinti (bass) anchor the musical expedition as it flies across the rich Afro-Cuban musical landscape.

The Jane Bunnett/Larry Cramer musical expedition dances its way south on the island to the city of Santiago… ‘The babalawo’ places the tray in front of him and taps rhythmically… ‘Orunmila’ is invoked… again, and some other ‘Orisha’ have been placated, for… The spirits are once again dancing in the flesh!

Alma de SantiagoOn Alma de Santiago (Connector, 2000), Bunnett’s saxophone and flute melds with, at times, the Santiago Jazz Saxophone Quartet, a group that translates mambo and Afro-jazz to the lexicon of the saxophone as it does on “Funky Mambo,” and “Almendra” a 38-piece percussion ensemble, La Conga de los Hoyos de Santiago de Cuba, that teams up with Jane Bunnett and the Santiago Jazz Saxophone Quartet to render Charlie Parker’s “Donna Lee” into a rousing bebop conga ensemble piece that would warm the cockles of Bird’s heart! Also playing a starring role in this chapter of the sacred journey is Eduardo ‘Tiburón’ Morales, a Cuban folklore vocalist who brings his Cuban-Villon-esque troubadour music to the Santiago project, also by Los Jubilados de Santiago de Cuba, another folkloric group that takes the record to the next level of bolero, conga and mambo. To the best of my knowledge, no record of this kind exists as yet.

Spirituals & DedicationsFrom Santiago to the Glenn Gould studios in Toronto could be a long haul if the spirits are displeased. Not in this instance, however… Jane Bunnett and Larry Cramer have found the happy medium. Spirituals and Dedications (Justin Time, 2002) marks a shift to the northern Godhead… the Gospel is preached—as Mr. Mingus would say—with Holy Rollin’ fervor! The project is brought to perfection with the spiritual intertwining and the energy of Stanley Cowell (piano), Dewey Redman (tenor sax), Dean Bowman (vocals and the revelation of the record and—of course—the magical flute and saxophone of Jane Bunnett. It is a travesty of justice that this record is allowed to die in the musical desert of Canada, which seems to deny its artists their true artistry. Once again, Ms. Bunnett pays tribute to her old friend Don Pullen—this time with a stirring rendition of her own composition, “Don’s Light.” Stanley Cowell contributes “Illusion Suite” and “Cal Massey” his own tribute to the late musical associate of Archie Shepp, who also wrote the wonderful track, “Steam” and worked with Shepp on his historic gig, Attica Blues (Impulse, 1972). Mr. Bowman excels on “Illusion Suite,” “I’m Gonna Tell God,” “Shadrack,” Clifford Jordan’s “Powerful Paul Robeson” and the traditional “Sometimes I feel Like A Motherless Child.” But the crowning moment is the (first) vocal version of Charles Mingus’ “Ecclusiastics”—both for Jane Bunnett’s bass flute and Mr. Bowman’s baritone voice!

Skate… shape… blow your breath away… make a turn for the fire that burns bright…The Island is beckoning… See how Jane Bunnett is coming down the island with gleaming brass saxophone blowing… The ‘babalawo’ places the tray in front of him and taps rhythmically…

Cuban OdysseyLarry Cramer and Jane Bunnett are actually headed into the heartland of Cuba. To Matanzas and Cienfuegos. Heart and soul of Cuban folklore have been awakened again. Cuban Odyssey (EMI Canada, 2002)—it’s CD and attendant DVD finally documents the spectacular journey that is two decades in the making. Jane Bunnett and Larry Cramer begin to retrace The Lost Steps, so to speak, of Alejo Carpentier y Valmont. The great Cuban novelist and musicologist, one of the first practitioners of magical realism, described an epic journey into the unknown where he is in search of the magical elements of pure music.

Jane Bunnett’s journey begins in Havana before it progresses into the depths of Matanzas and further south to Cienfuegos. Her extravagant expedition is heralded with the free-blowing “Arrival,” a sort of fantasy impromptu… the kind that Mr. Coltrane would have made were he alive and able to break the embargo to travel to Cuba. Before the dust settles, there is a joyous gathering of rumberos for a high-spirited performance of the Cuban classic, “Quitate el Chaquetón” (Take off your Jacket). You might think that this would set the tone for the journey that is to follow… you may be just about right. Importantly, the cast of musicians also features Guillermo Rubalcaba, father of the renowned pianist, Gonzalo Rubalcaba. The party—quite literally—begins! And a host of characters join in—including Félix Chappotín, the legendary trumpeter, Mr. Rubalcaba, Changuito on timbales, the late Tata Güines, on congas and El Nene, lead vocalist of Los Clásicos del Son.

But it is really Merceditas Valdés whose spirit hovers over the recording, who casts a shadow as deep and long as Billie Holiday. Fittingly, the recording features “A la Rumba,” a track that Merceditas Valdés recorded but never was released until now. “Suite Matanzas” follows. This is an extended piece and features the voices of the spectacular Los Muñequitos de Matanzas. Almost like interlopers, Jane Bunnett and Larry Cramer steel their way through a series of traditional songs rarely heard outside Cuba. Ms. Bunnett describes this as almost a mystical experience: “As I was playing, I felt so elated, totally carried away by the collective energy generated by all of these musicians and by the audience.”

From Matanzas to Cienfuegos… Jane Bunnett and Larry Cramer imbue the spirit and music of Los Naranjos, a pioneering son band founded there in 1926! Their contribution is celebrated with a version of the song that actually made them famous, “El Diablo Tun Tun.” Both Ms. Bunnett and Mr. Cramer jump right in as if there was always room for them in a song that only Cubans usually play!

The final stopover on the Cuban sonic expedition is Camagüey. Here Jane Bunnett and Larry Cramer intermingle with the fabulously rare ten-voice choir, Desandann. Made up of descendants of Haitian slaves and émigrés, Desandann sings neither Spanish, nor Yoruba, but actually in Patois! Their repertoire is priceless! The music draws a line from African-American Gospel choirs to a much more ancient spiritual tradition… Carpentier’s Lost Steps come to life… The music is exceptionally moving spiritually, but also traverses the landscape of Afro-rhythms… Again Jane Bunnett tunes in almost as if she were a musician in the skin of Desandann—like Pharoah Sanders and the Gnawas in Trance of the Seven Colors! Again, it’s as if she belongs there! “Alabans,” performed by Desandann alone has a similar haunting African-derived 6/8 rhythm. Jane Bunnett and Larry Cramer then join in the calypso-like “Prizon,” a song almost unheard of in the Cuban repertoire. Journey’s end is a spectacular celebration, entitled “Ron con Ron,” written by Tata Güines and featuring an all-star cast including Mr. Rubalcaba, Changuito, Pancho Quinto, Maximino and the celebrated tres guitar of Papi Oviedo!

There is a burning desire to honor the masters of the past—not musicians alone, but the ingenuity of the keepers of the cultural flame—the writers and composers who turn human history into works of art. They bring pleasure to generations of listeners—both aficionados and plain ordinary folk. The flames grow until they cannot be put out except by “turning your greatest dreams into reality.” Jane Bunnett and Larry Cramer have this dream for a long time… “Of focusing on the soprano saxophone, engulfed in a sea of beautiful harmonies with a string Quartet…”

Red Dragon'FlyRed Dragonfly—aka Tomba (EMI Canada, 2004) is the gorgeous result of that dream! The record features Jane Bunnett (soprano sax) who is joined by Larry Cramer (trumpet and flugelhorn); David Virelles (piano); Kieran Overs (bass) and Mark McLean (drums) as well as by the celebrated Penderecki String Quartet. The program re-creates folk songs from around the world, represented through the souls of modern arrangers, for the modern era. This is a significant achievement not only for Jane Bunnett, but also for the arrangers themselves. Don Thompson, Hilario Durán, David Virelles… all contributed to making this project an oblique tribute to—in many respects—the genius of Béla Bartók. For just as Bartók turned the folk music of Hungary into some of the most enduring music in the classical mould, so also have Jane Bunnett and her cast and crew of Red Dragonfly transformed some of the most enduring folk music of the Americas, Japan and Africa into a triumphant offering for the art of jazz!

Celso Machado’s “Odira-e,” Jim Pepper’s moving Peyote chant, “Witchi Tai To,” Kousaku Yamada’s “Red Dragonfly (aka Tomba),” “Divule Oni,” the Yoruba song, “Nkosi Sikelel’i Africa,” and “Un Canadien Errant” all contribute to a more fulfilling Jane Bunnett songbook, which is now more priceless than ever. But perhaps the most spectacular piece on the album is “Heaven’s Gate,” written by Ms. Bunnett herself, and which showcases her immense compositional skills and grasp of the folk milieu.

Dreaming of Jane Bunnett—much like the song David wrote once… And in the dream, these words become top-of-mind… Guantánamo, Cuba… perhaps I misunderstood you… I thought you was a military base only… a damn American one with eyes on my brothers there… So sorry I forgot your Changüi people, maan…

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Raul da Gama is a poet and essayist. He has published three collections of poetry, He studied at Trinity College of Music, London specialising in theory and piano, and he has a Masters in The Classics. He is an accomplished critic whose profound analysis is reinforced by his deep technical and historical understanding of music and literature.


  1. Raul,
    Marvelous piece. I particularly like the fact that you take Canada (Toronto) to task for the lack of support. I also like the fact that you give Larry his due. His contributions tend to be overshadowed by Jane’s charisma and talent. Aside from their immense talents, Jane and Larry are the salt of the earth. A rare combination indeed.


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