The sound of Afro-Latin jazz is so all-pervasive these days, that it's difficult to remember — Jelly Roll Morton's instructions about the "Latin tinge" notwithstanding — that there was a time when it represented a radical departure. Understand: I'm not talking about "jazzy" Afro-Latin dance music like the rumba, mambo and the cha-cha-cha. I'm talking about a fusion of those and other Afro-Latin forms and rhythms with jazz improvisation. By that account, the collaboration between Dizzy Gillespie and the Cuban conga player, singer, and dancer Chano Pozo was seminal. Yes, Mario Bauza and Machito were early progenitors, but they played for primarily Latino audiences. Bauza introduced Pozo to Gillespie, and it was their concert of September 27, 1947 at Carnegie Hall that provided the big bang that ignited Afro-Latin-jazz fusion, helping it cross over not only to the jazz audience, but to the mainstream.
At that concert, Pozo and the Gillespie big band played composer George Russell's seven-minute "Afro-Cuban Suite" (better known as "Cubana Be, Cubana Bop"). Russell later recalled the Carnegie Hall crowd as somewhat taken aback by Pozo who, stripped to the waist and chanting, attacked his congas. The short-lived collaboration between Gillespie and Pozo (Pozo was murdered in Spanish Harlem in a dispute over a bag of marijuana in 1948 at age 32) produced pieces like "Tin Tin Deo," "Guachi Guaro," and, arguably one of the masterpieces of modern jazz, "Manteca."
"Courageous" is how Terence Blanchard characterizes the Gillespie-Pozo collaboration when I reach him on the phone at his home in New Orleans. How's that? "Because nobody was thinking about it!" He laughs. " 'How would you do that? . . . . How could you . . . ? ' No one ways thinking about taking Latin music and having a jazz musician perform over it! And now there are classes taught on it."
Blanchard joins conguero Poncho Sanchez and his Latin Jazz Band at Berklee Performance Center for a Celebrity Series concert on November 6 to commemorate the Gillespie/Pozo relationship, and to play some of those classic tunes, as well as some of their own, from their new Chano y Dizzy! (Concord).
"Chano was not technically the greatest conga player," Sanchez tells me when I reach him in LA. "But it was the ambition, the ideas, the energy he carried." Aside from being a percussionist, Pozo was also a dancer, singer, and composer. His rhythms, Sanchez tells me, came from the street. "He was a tough dude."
What's more, as Donald L. Maggin has related in his Dizzy: The Life and Times of John Birks Gillespie, Pozo had a broad vocabulary of Afro-Cuban rhythms, and an uncanny knack for finding the right rhythm for an arrangement or with which to accompany a soloist.
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At the Berklee show, as on Chano y Dizzy, Blanchard will be joining Sanchez's band, with arrangements by pianist David Torres. Aside from a medly of "Tin Tin Deo," "Manteca," and "Guachi Guaro," the album's 11 pieces include an Afro-Cuban take on Blanchard's "Wandering Wonder" as well as Gillespie's "Groovin' High," the Cuban ballad classic "Siboney," and a ripping version of Pozo's "Ariñañara." The band's grooves are well oiled, especially in their shifts from furious polyrhythms to smooth, swinging cha-cha-cha. Blanchard, whose work with his own band has been brooding and often relentlessly intense in the years since Katrina, is loose and flying. Perhaps the only disappointment in the project is that the band has not yet taken on Russell's "Cubana Be, Cubana Bop," despite being the source of the concert tour's name ("Cubano Be! Cubano Bop!"). Nonetheless, it's exciting to hear this music reprised.
"The rhythms are very infectious," says Blanchard. "And they seem to be created out of the need to express a powerful emotion. Whenever somebody's in despair, there's power in that emotion that can create something else that's powerful in terms of art."
DANIEL ROSENTHAL QUINTET/SEXTET | Lily Pad, 1353 Cambridge St, Cambridge | November 6 @ 7:30 pm | $10 |lily-pad.net
CUBANO BE! CUBANO BOP! with Poncho Sanchez and his Latin Jazz Band featuring Terence Blanchard | Berklee Performance Center, 136 Mass Ave, Boston | November 6 @ 7 pm | $40-$54 | 617.482.6661 or celebrityseries.org