Daffodils Prieto. Photo: courtesy of the artist.

Dafnis Prieto: "I really enjoy that which is called tradition, but I don´t stay there"

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Interviews

When he is not on tour or wakes up early to teach at the University of Miami, Daphnis Prieto (Santa Clara, 1974) loves to play with his two dogs and have a quiet coffee in the kitchen with his partner. Based in Hollywood, Florida, after several years living in New York, his story is similar to other Cuban musicians scattered around the world. Almost unknown on the island, Daphnis is sought after as a drummer by great figures of music such as Michel Camilo or Steve Coleman. He has been pampered by music critics and his prizes include the MacArthur scholarship of 2011, a recognition that in 37 years only two percussionists have received: the legendary Max Roach, and him. If that is not enough, Dafnis has consolidated his own work full of innovation and searches in different formats that right now places Cuban music, as we know it, a thousand light-years away. A good example is his latest album, conceived for a format of big band, for which he just received a Grammy nomination for best Latin jazz album. His name is Back to the Sunset, and it sounds to me like a newly flowered flamboyant on the horizon.

"This project arose when the record producer, Eric Oberstein - an American Grammy Award winner The Afro Latin Jazz Suite, of Arturo O'Farrill-, he called me and said he wanted to do something with me. I told him that I was going to take this opportunity to record an album of big band, which is something I still had to do. I had already written several tracks for this format, but I had never put one together with all my music and my arrangements. "

How does it a drummer to compose nine songs, lead the 17 musicians of one big band and take care of even the smallest details of the recording?

"When I sit down to write music, I'm not just a drummer, but a musician in its entirety. I like listening and conceiving music in its entirety, it is part of who I am. This is my seventh album as a leader, so I'm a little used to carrying this responsibility. I have produced all my previous albums, including others released by my Dafnison Music label. "

Years ago you said in an interview that in your "head there really is no specific classification of music" and that helped yo conceiving it in a very open way. Where does that vocation come from, then, from wanting to always go beyond the drummer you are, and create, be an artist with ambition?

"There is something in me that takes me beyond the battery, and beyond the music categories. It must be art in general and the need to create. I enjoy as well writing a song, or a theme for big band, or chamber music, or I do a drum solo. I neither see nor feel those limits of genre, or rather I see them but they do not limit me. What interests me is quality and this can happen in any kind of music. "

It's hard to talk about big bands in New York and not think about the nights of the great Chico O'Farrill in the city. What memories do you have of your encounter with him?

"I met and worked with Chico O'Farrill a couple of times when I arrived in New York. I played his music when he was driving his big band at Birdland. That was when I began to know and listen to his music. I have no memory of talking to him, but hey, that's what the music always was for. "

How far do you think you can stretch the tradition of big band in Cuban music today?

"The tradition of big bands is like all traditions; they were created by human beings like you and me. Everything can change and take another form, the concepts change and also the ways of execution. As I mentioned before, I really enjoy what is called tradition, but I do not stay there, I develop, I continue my personal path. All periods are represented in various types of music, and any tradition can be developed from the present. I live and make music the way I live and feel, I can not make music like someone else. "

Dafnis Prieto with the musicians of the big band. Photo: Courtesy of the artist.
Dafnis Prieto with the musicians of the big band. Photo: Courtesy of the artist.

 Once again, the theme that opens the album, has a very clear melody, a tumbao that invites to the party and, at the same time, a load of lyricism that crosses everything like a river. That's what I see, but I would like to know what the ingredients are in your conception of big band.  

"Each theme has its own history, its ways of existing. I wrote this specific song for Eddie Palmieri and Brian Lynch, with whom I have had the honor of playing more than once. I wrote it thinking about Eddie and his music. I am a fan of melody and rhythm, and on this topic I tried to take stock of the two. The ingredients are those and a touch of tradition, but with a personal and updated look ".

You were talking about your label Dafnison Music, under which a large part of your discography as a soloist has come out. What learning has left you that job as manager of your own work?

"Yes, Dafnison Music label came to light in 2008, 10 years ago. I have learned about how music business works. An important aspect is the need to become independent and not depend on the big labels. I have gone through tremendous financial difficulties, because in the end I have to pay for everything I do. But at the same time I feel the satisfaction of doing it with freedom and in the way I want it. That´s priceless. I like to be aware of the first note that is recorded, the cover, the lines of the record, the mixing and mastering, the promotion and the sale of the records ".

On your album, you pay tribute to 22 musicians. Almost a hall of fame, with players like Chano Pozo, Art Bakley and Bebo Valdés! Why these ones and not others?

"There are always going to be many left outside, but I made a fairly fair collection of those who have been essential to me. They are musicians and artists who have influenced and inspired me. With the majority I have had the pleasure of playing, recording and learning. I´ve also dedicated some songs to other musicians that although I didn´t know personally, they have influenced me in many ways. In this way I pay homage to them of appreciation and gratitude. "

Yesterday (October 1st), the 54th Street pirate, trumpeter Jerry González, died. What does the theme that you dedicate here evokes, The Sooner the BetterNow, after his death?

I thought about Jerry doing a solo. I dedicated that subject to Egberto Gismonti and him. I played a lot with Jerry, I did several tours with his group Fort Apache. We were good friends and we shared pleasant moments. So I will always remember all those details.

Let's talk a little about Cuba. There are still people who remember Columna B (the super band you founded in 1993 together with Roberto Carcassés, Descemer Bueno and Yosvany Terry). What memories do you have of that stage? 

That was one of the most beautiful stages of my life, I grew up with these friends and great musicians. I think we all learned from everyone. We were very passionate and we managed to create a sound and a strong energy as a group. I always remember those tours of Spain and the United States.

How much did the background you have of your studies in Cuba helped you when you went out to the world to defend your projects?

My school studies in Santa Clara and ENA in Havana were generally of classical music. They gave me a good base of general musical knowledge, things like harmony, solfege, counterpoint, and other musical techniques. But also, at the same time, we had a great influence on Cuban music. That was inevitable. Some students also liked jazz, so we passed recordings from hand to hand. We learned a lot like that. In my case, in addition to receiving classical percussion classes at school, I tried to learn to write and play drums on my own. In general, I can tell you that it was a mixture of several things.

Are there plans in the immediate future to play Back to The sunset in Cuba?   

Yes, we are planning to play the music of this record at the Jazz Plaza Festival in January 2019. I hope everything goes well. I will take the musicians from my sextet, and there in Havana we will invite other eleven Cuban musicians to complete our big band. Another wish is to play with the sextet at the Art Factory. When the time comes, it will be an immense joy to share my music with the friends and people of my country.

Back to the sunset (Dafnison Music, 2018)

  1. Once Plus (dedicated to Tito Puente, Eddie Palmieri and Brian Lynch)
  2. The Sooner the Better (dedicated to Egberto Gismonti and Jerry González)
  3. Out of the Bone (dedicated to Steve Coleman and Michel Camilo)
  4. Back to the Sunset (dedicated to Henry Threadgill and Andrew Hill)
  5. Danzonish Potpourri (dedicated to Bebo Valdés, Art Blakey and Jane Bunnett)
  6. Song for Chico (dedicated to Chico O'Farrill, Arturo O'Farrill and Mario Bauzá)
  7. Prelude for Rosa (dedicated to Bobby Carcassés and Dave Samuels)
  8. Two for One (dedicated to Buddy Rich, Chucho Valdés and Hermeto Pascoal)
  9. The Triumphant Journey (dedicated to Dizzy Gillespie and Chano Pozo).

Daffodils Prieto drums and musical direction
Mike Rodriguez, Nathan Eklund, Alex Sipiagin and Josh Deutsch in trumpets and fliscorns,
Román Filiú  in alto and soprano saxophones, flute and clarinet,
Michael Thomas in alto and soprano saxophones, flute and piccolo,
Peter Apfelbaum on tenor and soprano and melodic saxophones,
Joel Frahm on tenor and soprano saxophones,
Chris Cheek on baritone sax,
Tim Albright, Alan Ferber and Jacob Garchik in trombones,
Jeff Nelson on bass trombone,
Manuel Valera on piano,
Ricky Rodríguez on double bass and electric bass,
Roberto Quintero in percussion.
Guests: Henry Threadgill on alto sax, Brian Lynch in trumpet and Steve Coleman in alto sax.

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