A Few Minutes With… Michele Rosewoman

Interview and story by J Hunter

It’s not a rare thing to live your dream. Depending on the dream and the person dreaming it, it happens every day. But how many people get to live that dream for three decades – and then get the chance to share that dream with the rest of the world?

Pianist Michele Rosewoman had a dream: To build a band big enough and talented enough to present Cuban music in a way that truly exposed its roots – both spiritual and international. That band was New Yor-Uba, and it’s been doing the job for 30 beautiful years. The group has toured the world, so it’s not just New Yorkers who’ve had the pleasure of seeing Rosewoman’s creation. But now, thanks to (one more) successful Kickstarter campaign New Yor-Uba gets to find the people who couldn’t make it to the shows with her new double-CD 30 Years: A Celebration of Cuba in America.

Alumni of New Yor-Uba include jazz stalwarts like Rufus Reid and John Stubblefield. And you might know some of the names in the current 12-piece unit; in the case of multi-instrumentalist Howard Johnson and conguero Pedrito Martinez, you might have seen them play somewhere in Greater Nippertown. But even if you knew none of the names and knew nothing about Cuban music, the light, the fire, the beauty and the spirituality that radiates from each piece on the two-disc set would still touch your heart and soul.

30 Years was released on Tuesday (September 10), and the big “drop party” to celebrate the double-disc just happens in the middle of Jazz at the Lake 2013’s Saturday afternoon show (September 14) at Lake George’s Shepard Park. Rosewoman took time out from preparing for that show to answer a few questions for Nippertown:

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Q: New Yor-Uba made its first appearance in 1983, but this music goes back to childhood for you, right?

A: I came up listening to r&b, jazz and what they now call world music. I heard traditional jazz arists in my home as well as spiritually based music from around the world – India, Indonesia, South America, Cuba, Africa – which I was very drawn to. R&B in Oakland in the ’50s and ’60s was prominent and is the backdrop for a lot of my memories and associations. I began playing piano at age six; improvising and playing by ear was the way I started. When I first remember hearing pure Cuban folkloric music (songs to the Orishas and bata), I was 18. This catapulted me into playing percussion and studying these very specific traditions.

Q: Most people think Afro-Cuban is just one of the finer versions of party music. Is it fair to say that you’re just as interested in communicating this music’s tradition and spirituality as much as you are its celebratory aspects?

A: Most people are not familiar with the deeper folkloric traditions, so they may associate Cuban music with the more secular idioms. I love Cuban music in general, but New Yor-Uba is mostly about the spiritually-based folkloric music, which does include rumba. Rumba overlaps with the non-secular folkloric traditions, but is basically a celebratory idiom where people dance and party. The spiritually based music is celebratory as well, but it celebrates God and the Orishas, specifically.

Q: How did the first version of the band come together? Were these people you were playing with at the time, or just people you knew from the New York scene? And where were you in your career at that point?

A: The ensemble was made up entirely of my musical associates. Some of us (Oliver Lake, Baikida Carroll, Rasul Siddik) go back to 1975, when I met them in California. Others I met in my first years in New York – Puntilla, Eddie Rodriguez, Gene Golden, Olu Femi Mitchell, John Stubblefield, Howard Johnson, Bob Stewart, Rufus Reid, Pheeroan akLaff. It felt great to pull these folks together for this specific project. It was very organic.

During those years, I was working with Cuban bands, working with many New York-based St. Louis and Chicago musicians, newcomers and founders of B.A.G., and others. I had not yet formed Quintessence, but was performing in trio settings with masters like Billy Hart and Rufus Reid and with an ensemble I had formed called Univision, which had various configurations: For the most part it was bass-less, with piano, two tubas, two trumpets and drums. I was performing with Billy Bang at the time, as well. I remember that when I returned from a European tour with New Yor-Uba in 1984, there was a letter awaiting me in my mailbox, stating I had won the ASCAP/Meet the Composer Award – awarded me by Dizzy Gillespie, Marian McPartland and Lester Bowie.

This was a great honor, and led to my writing a piece that was performed by the Brooklyn Philharmonic Orchestra plus a quintet of improvisers – again pulled together from my circle of associates, which consisted of Rufus Reid, Greg Oshy, Howard Johnson and Pheeroan akLaff. 1983-84 was a very special time in my career.

Q: The warmth in your words about Orlando “Puntilla” Ross almost makes the liner notes glow. Please talk about him and his contributions to New Yor-Uba.

A: Puntilla was a scout and a keeper of the key to tradition, and taught the oral history impeccably with little tolerance for mistakes or lack of subtlety. He was rough on everyone who studied with him. At the same time, he was open to music in ways that surprised everyone.

Puntilla relished the music that I constructed around the tradition. His presence in my New Yor-Uba ensemble and the pride he took in being a part of it was further evidence of his openness. He took pride in knowing the horn parts and telling newcomers what to play. He always said, with a very serious tone, “Michele, hay que gravar New Yor-Uba”. Now we have done it, and in his honor. His contributions to my New Yor-Uba ensemble are immeasurable.

He continues to guide and inspire all of us. Wherever I go that people know Puntilla, it is truly amazing the number of times I hear his name mentioned. No one can take his place in the musical and spiritual communities that he so profoundly helped to shape. His personality, his generosity, his quiet mastery, his touch on the bata and his immediately recognizable sound on quinto resound in our hearts and minds. But what brings tears to my eyes each time is the warmth and timbre of one of the most beautiful voices I’ve ever heard.

Q: One of the few people from the first to New Yor-Uba show that’s still in the band is Oliver Lake, who’s one of the few people (in my opinion, anyway) who really deserves the phrase “living legend.” Lake goes back to your days in San Francisco, right?

A: Yes, I met Oliver in 1975, when I was living in San Francisco. I was next-door neighbors with B.A.G. founding member, trumpet player and composer Baikida Carroll. It was indirectly through Oliver that I met Baikida, though. First, I had met Oliver’s guitarist, Michael Gregory Jackson, in Boston some years earlier. He was in town with Oliver to play at the Keystone Korner, and Michael and I connected. He and Oliver were staying with and next door to Baikida, and I ended up renting a room in that house next door. All the AACM and B.A.G. members stayed with Baikida at various times and I met them all between 1975-1978 before moving to New York, including Julius Hemphill, Roscoe Mitchell, Lester Bowie. Oliver gave me my first gig in New York, which was at Carnegie Recital on his birthday, September 14 – coming right up, in fact! I consider Oliver to be a big influence on me as a pianist and composer. His deliberateness and certainty; his sound, concept, clarity; and the all-around artist that he is – musician, poet, visual artist – inspires me constantly. He is a living legend, as you say – very diverse, and always coming with something new, always growing and expanding and inspiring others.

Q: The other link from the original band is Howard Johnson, who seems like he can (and does) play just about everything. Has he been as much of a “Swiss Army knife” do-it-all guy for New Yor-Uba as he was for legends like Levon Helm and David “Fathead” Newman?

A: Howard plays tuba and baritone with us – and, at times, penny whistle. A master on all of these instruments, no one can replace him. He is the only original member who has made almost every one of our performances through the years, and it is great to have him on this recording, 30 years later.

Q: Turning to the new generation of players, you’ve also got Pedrito Martinez on conga, bata and vocals. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing him in concert several times, and absolutely love his work. How long has Pedrito been in the band, and what’s it been like to work with him?

A: Puntilla brought Pedrito into New Yor-Uba within days of his (Pedrito’s) arrival here in 1998. I had an upcoming show at Tishman Auditorium and both Pedrito and “El Gato” (Ernesto Gatell) who were in town at the time from Cuba, performed with us. Pedrito stayed here and from that time on, was a member of the ensemble. New Yor-Uba took him on his first tour, which was to California. It was also the first and only time that Puntilla made it to the west coast. I was very proud to be the one to bring them there. When Puntilla passed, Pedrito took his seat, a hard seat to fill. But they are both masters with incredible knowledge and musicianship. Puntilla was more underground and extremely important to the spiritual community. Pedrito is a shooting star, and we have been blessed to have him with us through the years and for this recording. He is a great musician and a great person as well.

Q: What was the recording process for “30 Years” like for you? I mean, aside from the fact that you’re trying to capture a 12-piece band, putting this group and this music down on a recording’s been a dream for you for some time, right?

A: It was an amazing process. I offer my thanks to the Kickstarter backers who helped to fund this project. Pulling together these great musicians for numerous rehearsals, several performances and three days in the studio was a feat within itself. To see things coming together was like watching the clouds open up and stepping through. A dream of mine for many years for sure, and I had some concern about whether it would ever happen and if so, when. It is truly a labor of love and the fruition of many years of development. To be sitting on the brink of the release of this music to the public is a beautiful place to be.

Q: Of all the brilliant, colorful things on “30 Years,” the vocals really stand out for me. They’re so bright, and they reach right down to your soul and grab it. How important are the vocals in relation to all the other aspects of this music, and how much work goes into getting them “right”?

A: I have always been deeply moved by the voice, and I listen to a lot of vocal music – a lot of R&B, as well as folklore. And specific jazz singers that I truly love, including Sarah Vaughn, Ella, Betty Carter and Dinah Washington, to name a few.

In this context, the vocals are part of a folkloric tradition that only some know to this extent. It is a very spiritual and moving tradition and one feels it. For me, the vocals are vital in this context, in that they have to be right and very purely folkloric, and we definitely work it out. Having the right combination of voices for the chorus – in terms of vocalists with the knowledge and the timbre and ranges of our individual voices – makes this special in the way that it is. Having Pedrito in the ensemble, I gave a lot of space to the vocals, as he is an amazing vocalist and true lead singer – an “akpwon.” The group consists of a horn section, rhythm section, vocal section and percussion section. Each is of equal weight and importance. Each has to be complete within itself, and the connection to everything around it is equally important. It is all about balance and integration.

Michele Rosewoman’s New Yor-Uba will perform at Jazz at the Lake 2013 in Lake George’s Shepard Park at 4:30pm on Saturday (September 14). In addition, Saturday’s line-up also includes Nippertown’s own Brian Patneaude Quartet (1pm), the Joel Harrison-Anupam Shobhakar Quintet (2:30pm) and the New Gary Burton Quartet (7:30pm), followed by fireworks over the lake. Sunday’s schedule features violinist Christian Howes’ Southern Exposure (1pm), Ben Williams’ Sound Effect (2:30pm) and the Dave Liebman Big Band (4:15pm). Admission is free for both days of the festival. GO HERE for more info…

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