Home Masthead Jane Bunnett: Anatomy of a Modern Genius

Jane Bunnett: Anatomy of a Modern Genius


Jane Bunnett 5

But Jane Bunnett and Larry Cramer have not forgotten. They return once more to Cuba, this time dancing the line of out-of-control! Inspired by the music of Grupo Changüi de Guantánamo and also Grupo Changüi de Santiago. Radio Guantánamo—Guantánamo Blues Vol.—1 (Bunnett/Cramer/Blue Note, 2005) is born… It is almost like a secret revealed… No one expects such a vibrant music… But you cannot be tired of dis rumble beat… You best listen to Jane Bunnett: “Throughout this celebration of sounds, we brought some of our favorite musicians, whose… diverse background connected in a profound way…”

Radio Guantanamo

No truer word is spoken! Jumpin’ Johnny Sansone dives in with his two compositions that capture perfectly the life of New Orleans. “Gimmie One Dollar,” and “No Money No Chica” drive the Grupo Changüi de Santiago to ecstatic reverie… Sansone’s battered guitar and harmonica meld spectacularly with the tres, bongo and marímbula of the Changüiseros! The group is also joined once more by the venerable Dewey Redman, whose spiritual wailing and incredible blue notes pay unforgettable homage to “Yemayá and Changüi,” goddess of the ever present sea. Howard Johnson also stars in a roaring tribute to the marching bands of New Orleans—he stretches on a solo and trades licks with the marímbula in the stunning “Conga Blue.”

But lest there be a frivolous note here, listen not. Jane Bunnett and Larry Cramer have determined that they must carve another trail in the rich cultural miasma of Cuba. This one, however, has a very different tone. In a strange way, this joyful record is also an enduring statement of the commitment to true folklore, wherever it may exist. The record ranks—with Bill Laswell’s Cuban expedition—as a classic that captures the ravishing heartbeat of Cuba. It also records for future generations the complex mix of European melodies and West African polyrhythms… In improvisation, the call and response vocals Changüi triumphs as the precursor to the Cuban ‘son,’ but there is something more complex, more primal than its young offspring… Jane Bunnett and Larry Cramer tracing The Lost Steps of Carpentier?

She exudes a nervous energy when she is speaking, constantly searching for the right word to describe an experience or a memory, both of which she has in abundance, despite her relatively young age. She speaks with bowed head and furrowed brow… with reverence and compassion of elders and experiences, but always with an astute sense of history…

Embracing VoicesIn 2009 Ms. Bunnett attempted an all-embracing sweep of vocal/choral/instrumental music as Embracing Voices. This major project honored the human spirit, featuring the unique scope of the human voice and brave rhythmic, melodic and harmonic explorations into the furthest extent of musical instrumentation.

The result was a record that has been made with a large instrumental group—fourteen instruments creating a musical bed for the heavenly vocalastics of Grupo Vocal Desandann, the legendary ten-voice ensemble that celebrates the legacy of Haitian a capella music in the Camagüey region of Eastern Cuba. The choral group employ dense harmonies, intricately woven into call-and-response segues and contrapuntal structures. Stately basses grind con arco together with the trill of the high-flying soprano voices both ranges held together by the impervious glue of the contralto and counter-tenors in the middle.

Often these are melded with the bright skittering of the tres guitar and the rumble of the congas and tumbas, punctuated with the melodic clunk of the claves. On this record lead voices occasionally arise from the five male and five female singers like waves in an ocean of sound. Lead voices have also been crafted to include the rich sonic tapestry of Telmary Diaz’s rap, the soaring, soulful inflections of Kellylee Evans’ pipes and the gravelly and emotionally-charged blues of Molly Johnson, who leads the cast in one of the most definitive versions of legendary Belgian troubadour Jacques Brel’s “If you Go Away (Ne me quitte pas)” since Nina Simone.

The music runs the gamut of emotions that could possibly be sung by human voices, from the bluesy and melancholic to joyful and even ecstatic. Arrangements follow suit. There is a wonderful interplay of instruments, which provide impetus to the human voice and surround it with rich tonal colors. Larry Cramer’s trumpet—muted and open-belled—and flugelhorn brighten and darken moods with subtle shifts in notes and spaces. Don Thompson’s vibes do the same. Throughout it all Ms. Bunnett’s lead voice whether it be on soprano saxophone and flutes soars with infinite abandon—just as Coltrane and Eric Dolphy did on the “Africa/Brass” sessions—in and out of interstellar space.

The record opens with “Sway,” a fine composition that begins with a series of quarter notes sung a capella by Desandann before a drum roll that introduces the bass pedal point and the repetitive hypnotic riff draws in the rest of the group into its spirit-based musical vortex. The changes in the opening segment of the track are reminiscent of those on “India,” the famous chart introduced by Mr. Coltrane and Mr. Dolphy, but only the top half of the chorus. The minor-chord spell is broken in the bottom end of the song as it breaks down into a series of rapidly descending diminished chords that dramatically change mood of the song like the sun cracking open a dark sky to bathe everything in light.

“Kaleidoscope,” which once again features rich, minor variations at the start of the song, then proceeds to unfold like a vocalese poem, accompanied by flute and the militaristic rattle of a snare drum punctuated by splashes of cymbals. Ms. Bunnett’s flute takes a soaring solo as the emotion of the song is built up for Don Thompson’s vibes. The rhythm by now has quietly shifted into a backbeat of a samba. Tres and percussion herald the entry of the full complement of the vocal choir and other instruments and the bass voice, from Desandann soloing as the bass anchors in the Afro-Cuban segment that breaks in with timbales, cowbell and guiro—the cue for Mr. Cramer’s flugelhorn, which in turn re-introduces Ms. Bunnett’s flute as it intertwines with the voices as they add layer upon layer to the music as it builds up to an explosive finale.

The voices of Desandann then introduce us to the purest pain, on the deeply traditional Afro-Haitian coloration as the sopranos and mezzo-sopranos launch into “Wongolo,” followed by the rest of the voices. “Wongolo” is simply the most beautiful Haitian freedom song that says, “We will rise again…Haiti will not die…” Ms. Bunnett slides in with her own soprano voice behind a medley of percussion, daubing the music with light touches of brightness as it twists and turns bringing in the piano and the rest of the instruments before the song explodes ecstatically with voices and instruments melding into tres and marimba.

Ms. Bunnett’s flute flits like a firefly around the voice of Ms. Kellylee as “Serafina,” a bright work that is infused with the rhythmic intensity of a Cuban rumba and a streaming R&B romp into landscapes that cascade one into the other. The classic Jacques Brel/Rod McKwen chart, “Ne Me Quitte Pas” is next. This version is darker than most that have been sung. Bass and drums dominate the rhythmically intense arrangement, which heats up the gravelly voice of Molly Johnson as she describes the emotion of the break-up of the intense love affair. In the bridge that heralds the second mood that offers reason for staying vibes and piano create a brighter mood—but we are always reminded of the tragic circumstances of the principle character in the song by the choral bed that is provide by Desandann. Ms. Bunnett’s soprano saxophone—delicious in its lower register and skittering notes—and Mr. Thompson’s vibes have been showcased by the exquisite arrangement, especially after the final chord change moves the music into a major seventh.

“Pancho Quinto” pays tribute to the legendary Cuban percussionist in a novel manner: Telmary Diaz’ rap in counterpoint with the folksy son of Desandann, with flute, vibes, tres, conga and bass woven into the tapestry of the song. And if you thought that the folksy break would go on into the sunset, the interplay of voices, including Ms. Telmary’s street rap and Desandann’s spectacular smoky basses, wind up then down with the many-splendored percussion leading the music into the fade. “I Hear Voices” is as spectacular as it is angular.

The track melds Mr. Cramer and Ms. Bunnett, muted trumpet and flute and scatting voices in another minor mode with guitar. A vehicle for the viola of Barry Schiffman, co-founder of the St. Lawrence String Quartet in Banff, Alberta, and the acrobatic flute of Ms. Bunnett and an almost vocalese version of a solo from Pablosky Rosales. Pianist David Virelles is also superb in his energetic modal solo. Ms. Bunnett soars high, just as the late Eric Dolphy, on one of his famous sonic expeditions. Bass and drums maintain a riff based on the pedal point. This track too is reminiscent of Coltrane’s “Africa/Brass” songbook.

“Chen Nan Ren,” a protest song, is also a song of fervent hope, almost a prayer. Call response in Creole and French as voices—sopranos and basses intertwine—like dappled colors on a sonic canvas with the muted ring of the marimba and growl of the bass. Both duel gently with Mr. Cramer’s trumpet and Ms. Bunnett’s flute weaving in and out of the hypnotic voices of Desandann. Like an African prayer service.

“Egberto” is Don Thompson’s elegant tribute to composer Egberto Gismonti. This extraordinary and exquisitely complex track was first performed for Mr. Gismonti himself in Toronto. The track gathers the voices of Desandann together the rest of the instruments: Mr. Cramer’s is first to break as the a capella section describes a descent into a somber mood, soon to be brightened by Ms. Bunnett’s soprano and the voices of Grupo Desandann, which bring a somewhat calming effect until Mr. Thompson’s vibraharp takes over and shows why he is one of the finest on the instrument, where the blues of Milt Jackson and the soaring classicism of Bobby Hutcherson are reflected in Mr. Thompson’s unique, individual voice. Then Ms. Bunnett works her soprano in slow circular phrases from the bottom to the top of the register in a magnificent cascade of music.

“A Nu Danse” has a feel of almost being a classic Descarga. Handclaps and voices with percussion introduce another intricate Haitian Creole and call/response before the conga soprano unaccompanied by anything except handclaps and voices. Mr. Cramer joins in the festivities with a single chorus on flugelhorn followed by Mr. Thompson on vibes—samba and Santeria and African rhythms and European marching all rolled into one. Ms. Bunnett returns to soar above the theme until the close. “Pa Gen Dlo” is perhaps the most fascinating and boldest experiment on the record. Part 1 is a short meditative vehicle for Ms. Bunnett’s saxophone and piano. Hypnotic, mesmerizing, a duet with piano and saxophone doing what voices did throughout the record. In Part 2, a capella voices create a prayer that wraps itself taut as the colors in Grupo Desandann voices unfold in gorgeous harmony.

Sheila Jordan’s “The Only One” brings the record to a close. Kellylee Evans leads and Ms. Bunnett, in her inimitable way pizzicato style, with minimum glissando, draws Desandann in as the song unfold like a cross between a blues and a slow rhumba with a melody twist that leaps harmonically as it builds to the cinquillo rhythms of the batá drums that shook up the rituals of voodoo in Haiti and Santeria in Cuba. Ms. Bunnett’s oblique reference to “Scrapple from the Apple,” as the voices improvise on this theme—in the brassy backend of the song—is repeated until the music fades. Somehow the magical music of this set echoes seemingly forever as the notes disappear into a seemingly nocturnal soundscape.

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  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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