Trombonist, sonero, percussionist, composer, and arranger César Bauvallet spent his childhood immersed in the sones, danzones, boleros, and cha-cha-chas of Cuba’s Golden Era of Music—a veritable explosion of traditional music whose romance and rhythms found their way into jazz and popular music around the world. Bauvallet’s father, Daniel, was at the heart of that era. His performances as a singer and drummer in Havana nightclubs helped to define the essence of the music for his own and later generations, and he schooled his gifted children in Cuban musical traditions. Bauvallet refined his musical gifts at Havana’s famed Amadeo Roldán Conservatory, from which he graduated summa cum laude, and went on to have a very successful career in Cuba, traveling around the world and playing his roots.
Twenty-five years ago, on tour with his band in Mexico, Bauvallet and his brother defected, walking across the bridge to El Paso. Bauvallet settled in Albuquerque, where he introduced a new group, Son Como Son, playing a Cuban style of salsa entirely new to the city. The members of this nine-piece band, drawn from the local population, were remorselessly schooled by Bauvallet in the traditions that were second nature to him, whom they call “The Source,” a man as strict as he is generous. Twenty-three years later, Son Como Son still packs every venue with its high-energy shows, and Bauvallet has branched out into other projects, such as Tradiciones, a smaller band that he created to celebrate and preserve the sumptuously rhythmic and romantic dance music of Cuba.
For the New Mexico Jazz Festival, Bauvallet has put together a band that draws on the diverse musical experiences of its members—pianist Jim Ahrend, tenor saxophonist Kanoa Kaluhiwa, bassist Janet Harman (Bauvallet’s wife), bongosero Victor Rodríguez, drummer Danilo Bauvallet (the son of Bauvallet and Harman), and special guest and Bauvallet’s longtime friend conguero Raciel Tortoló from Team Havana. They’ll be appearing at the Outpost on Sunday evening, July 23.
I recently spoke with Bauvallet about the project, and the following excerpts from our conversation touch on the genesis of the project, the band members, his apprenticeship in Cuba as an arranger, and his objective for the evening.
César: How are you?
Mel: Good. Knock on wood. How about you?
César: Not too bad. Busy and stressed. That’s how it is. Janet broke her wrist two months
ago. . . . She needed to get surgery, a plate, and screws. She’s still in pain, but she’s recovering. She’s good.
Mel: Is she going to make the gig?
César: Mm-hmm. She’s going to make the gig.
Mel: That’s just what you need, your partner to be out of commission.
César: Out of commission fully. She couldn’t do anything. She played last night. She played the baby bass. It hurt, but it hurts less, so good.
Mel: So tell me how this gig came about? What was the process?
César: That was Tom Guralnick’s idea. [Guralnick is the executive director of Outpost Productions and is largely responsible for booking the New Mexico Jazz Festival.] He approached me and said, “You know, when we do the jazz fest, we like to dedicate a night to a local artist that has done some damage, and I really want you to be the one doing it this year.” And I said, “Tom, are you crazy?” “No, I want you. If you don’t do it, nobody’s going to do it.” That’s very nice. I love it. So let me see what I can do, and so you start thinking about it. I have a bunch of compositions that I have had for years, all based on Cuban stuff. A bunch of cha-cha-chas and 6/8 rhythms.
Mel: You mentioned cha-cha-cha. I have to tell you something. One night at a Son Como Son gig, you mentioned something about how ballroom dancing had ruined cha-cha-cha, and then you counted it off in the Cuban way. That just changed my whole perception of cha-cha-cha. Holy moley, it’s a completely different animal.
Mel: So thank you for that little bit of education.
César: You’re very welcome. So the ballroom style is one/two/cha-cha-cha. But it’s not one/two/cha-cha-cha. It’s two/three/cha-cha-cha, two/three/cha-cha-one. And if you listen to the accent in the word, it’s cha-cha-cha—that’s the one that has the downbeat, the accent. That’s the way it was created.
Mel: It’s very sedate in the ballroom, but when you count it out that way, it becomes a different thing altogether.
César: Because it’s playing with the clave. It goes together with the music.
Mel: So back to your compositions, some of which you’ve had for years.
César: I’m always writing. When I’m not writing for Son Como Son, I’m writing ideas that I have in my mind, and I put them down, and I might [rework it]. And I said, OK, let me get that material. The second part of it is, for projects like this, I love to put together some people that have never played together and incorporate all the styles of the players that have never played this music and bring them to the project and see what happens. So it’s like an experiment, quote unquote, and I love those things.
Mel: I see that you’ve got a saxophone in the group, and I know you’re not particularly fond of saxophones.
César: Well, I’m going to clarify: I love the instrument. OK? I love the sound of the instrument when it’s played in the way that I grew up listening to it. . . . [Some people], when they play the saxophone, it sounds like a chainsaw. [Laughter] Whreeee! I like the full sound of the saxophone, the instrument exploded to its full potential, and there are few people that can do that here.
Mel: Kanoa’s definitely one of them.
César: Kanoa’s definitely one of them. It’s not that I have anything against [the chainsaw players], but I am a pain, and you know that. Everybody knows that. [Laughter]
Mel: Can I quote you: “I am a pain”?
César: Yeah, you can quote that. [More laughter] The other thing is the rhythmic possibilities. This kind of music is very different syncopation-wise. So there have to be people that are familiar, that put this stuff together, that can groove over these kinds of rhythms. That’s the other aspect of it. So I start thinking, and I say, “OK, Kanoa. Could be a decent thing. I love playing with that guy.” OK, then I say, “What about the piano player?” Now, there are a bunch of piano players, but I have a guy that I have not played with. I hear him play, and I like his melodic approach to the improvisation and to the music itself—and that’s Jim Ahrend. It happens that Kanoa, Jim, and me are three of the teachers that do classes at the Outpost. So I say, “These are two things that are pushing me in the same direction.”
Mel: Jim’s a good guy, a good musician.
César: Sweet, nice, and he does his homework. I just played [with him] last night. We played boleros at the NHCC. When he came to the first rehearsal, he was prepared. He sees the music, he can play, but to go from there to the interpretation of the music itself and get inside, you need to do your homework. He does that. He’s very professional that way, so it’s a pleasure to work with him.
So in the same line of bringing people that have never played together, I am bringing a conga player from Cuba that I know since he was 10 years old. Raciel Tortoló—with an accent on the last “o.” They call him “Tortolo all the time, so I say, “Hey, change his last name.” I know his whole family. I was a friend of his father, his uncles. Actually, his grandpa was the one who put me in shape after I got out of the conservatory. He was the one who made me learn how to write music. That was Sigfrido Tortoló.
Mel: Sigfrido. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that name before.
César: That makes two of us. [Laughter] When I got out of conservatory, I was frustrated because I couldn’t play the music that I wanted to play. We were playing dominoes one night: Sigfrido, guitarist Gustavo Rodriguez, who became my teacher, and a couple of kids. . . . And Sigfrido looks at me and says, “¿Cuánto tiempo vas a estar comiendo mierda?” How long are you going to be eating shit and doing nothing? And I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “You have a teacher, a master of arranging and composition, right there, living in the same place that you are living. You have him there, and you have not approached him yet for him to teach you what he knows.” At the time, I wasn’t making any money, and I said, “That would be nice, but I cannot pay for this.”
I think they have talked already. I think that was a setup, because when I said that, Gustavo said, “Who talked about money?” [Laughter] And that was the beginning. Gustavo said, “Yeah, you are going to pay. You are going to pay by doing a little work. The first arrangements that you’re going to write are going to have my name, not yours. I’m going to give you part of my work on one condition.” I said, “What is the condition?” “Every time you write a note down on paper”—this is when we used to write by hand—“you have to come back here and tell me why, explain everything you did, based on what you’re learning.”
And let me tell you, it was hard.
Mel: I bet.
César: The first question in that first class was a very simple question. The same kind that my father used to ask questions. It’s a question that comes open, and it comes like a big pole with a bunch of spikes on the back. He asked us, “What is the most important tool of an arranger.” Of course, I said, “The pencil.”
Mel: No, I don’t think that was right.
César: No, it was not right. And I said, “So, what?” And he said, “The eraser.” [Laughter]
Mel: I would have gotten it wrong, too. That’s great.
César: “The eraser. You need to be able to correct yourself. You need to be able to double-check everything you do, and know why you do it, and find the right thing for the moment. There’s ten thousand notes you can put in a piece of music, but you have to find the best one, and you need to be able to erase it and do it again.” So at that time, he pulled two erasers, big like this. That was wonderful. That was wonderful. Then the second question was, “Do you know how to classify intervals?” And I was a very good student at the conservatory, and he proved to me that night that I did not have any idea whatsoever how to classify an interval.
Mel: I’m not sure what that means.
César: An interval is the distance between two notes.
César: You need to know, is it a major third or a minor third.
Mel: Oh, I see, so identify what you’re hearing.
César: So that gives you the ability to identify the chords, based on the extensions of the chords, blah blah blah blah. So in order to write something, you need to know what you’re hearing, and what you’re putting there, all the interaction—how the music, one note with the other one, depending on the color of the sound of the instrument, is going to work. Oh, man.
Mel: So you came out of conservatory, and you didn’t have that?
César: I did. We all knew, but the problem is that in music—from the point of view of my experience, and I don’t have much experience—you learn things theoretically, practically, and you know them, but you don’t really know them until you start working with them, until you start experimenting, put them in a lab. A lab, in this case, is, at that time, a band, a group of musicians that can play the music. You can hear what you’re doing. Now, it’s a lot simpler. You have computers that imitate sounds, and you can hear it, but at the time, it was more here [pointing to ear]. . . .
So Janet is playing the gig because Janet is the backbone of this kind of music. Everybody can play the notes [on the chart]. There’s a bunch of people that can do this. There’s something else that has to be put in the music, which is the soul. It’s not what you play, it’s how you play it. It’s the intention, the intensity, the conception. She has been playing this kind of music for 25 years plus. So I’m bringing that to us, the backbone of the band, because I need some people that work together to do this.
And I am bringing Victor Rodríguez, which is the conga player in [Son Como Son]. He’s going to be playing the instrument that he likes.
Mel: The bongos?
César: The bongos. Victor’s a bongosero. I have him play congas [in Son Como Son], and he looks at me every time. [His eyebrows raised and eyes wide, a pained expression crosses his face.] And every single time that he has to jump on the bongos, that’s exactly what he does. He jumps on them because that’s his passion. So he’s going to be playing the bongos.
Mel: All right.
César: I’m bringing a newbie in the equation. It’s going to be Danilo.
Mel: Your son.
César: Mm-hmm. He’s ready to start looking at music from a different point of view. He loves metal. He loves all that stuff. But he’s educated, since he was nothing, in this kind of style. So let’s throw it in the mix and see what happens. I trained him, of course, worked hard on him. He’s very musical, very good sense of rhythm placement and soul. So it’s time for him to start growing up. He’s 15 already. Come on. [Laughter] He goes, like, “Oh, Dad, that’s so difficult what you wrote.” He has to read it.
Mel: And what are you going to be playing?
César: I’m going to be playing mainly trombone and some batá drums. I’m going to sing a couple of tunes, a couple of beautiful tunes. We’re going to play rumba, so some percussion. But I don’t want to be the center of this. I want everybody else to be the center. I want everybody else to be able to put all these different approaches to music together. That’s what my hopes are.
Mel: Well, you’ve got good people.
César: It should work.
Mel: I’m sure it will be good. Whether it will be what you want remains to be seen.
César: Well, what I want is what can come out of it. The objective is exactly to see what comes out of it. That’s part of music expression, as well. Music should be something that is spontaneous. So let’s get together, let’s put it together, let’s set the parameters, and then solo however you want. And that’s the advantage of playing Latin jazz. . . . It should be exciting.
Mel: It’ll be fun. I know that.
César: It’s going to be fun. That I can tell you. It’s going to be a lot of fun.
César Bauvallet’s Cuban Jazz Project
Sunday, July 23, at 8:00 p.m.
Weil Hall at the Outpost Performance Space
210 Yale SE, Albuquerque
Tickets: $25, general admission/$20, Outpost members/students
For more info and tickets, go here or call 505-268-0044.
© 2017 Mel Minter. All rights reserved.