Grammy winning Latin jazz composer Dafnis Prieto expands sound with a big band


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Jazz drummer Dafnis Prieto made a slow crawl to become a band leader. Upon moving to New York in 1999, he spent years as a sideman for numerous artists before releasing his 2005 album About the Monks, where he proved himself to be as strong of a composer as he is a musician.

“The big impulse or urge was when I arrived in New York and I saw the possibility of myself, doing something of my own with my own vocabulary, musically speaking,” Prieto says.

Listening to him 20 years later, Prieto’s music sounds so self-assured and rich that it’s a wonder he wasn’t recording his own compositions earlier.

Stylistically, Prieto leans into the music he grew up with in Cuba, keeping it close to the heart of the sound, while performing with some strict jazz conventions.

“I got interested in jazz while I was still in Cuba, when I was younger,” he explains. “I liked the improvisation, which I always liked in Cuban music. Improvisation is not something that is unique to jazz. Improvisation has been going for centuries. But the templates, the possibilities, the style, and the players — I really learned to admire and to understand great jazz musicians and their vocabulary and their artistic statements.”

Afro-Cuban music and Afro-beat structures are present on tunes like “Blah Blah” and “Danzonish Potpourri,” which both show the manner in which Prieto presents rhythm. Neither song is a foot-tapper, but they rely so heavily on the precise and complicated musicality of the drums. Prieto proves himself to be the thinking person’s drummer: something admirable from afar and densely premeditated when closely inspected.

In 2008’s Taking the Soul for a Walk, Prieto ties his layered Latin jazz playing to an occasionally chaotic and more traditional piano composition.

“To me, the style is more of an attitude than anything else — the attitude of how you’re going to approach that,” the drummer contemplates. “It’s a template and you navigate through different possibilities of templates, and what is the attitude and character that you want to give to that song.”

As Prieto describes, diversity in music doesn’t need to be far reaching and it serves the sound well when properly used. “I like variety, but variety could be within the same genre, so you don’t have to change the genre to vary or anything,” he says. “It’s just a matter of making a decision of what’s the best approach and the best way to make that music alive.”

Prieto’s latest album, Back to the Sunset, is a masterful meld of expert rhythmic structures and lush orchestration from a big band, an upgrade from the traditional jazz band structure that the drummer implemented in the past. “This is an ambitious project,” Prieto says about the album. “I just look at it as an extension of what I had been doing before. Obviously, I was much more careful. Each song represents a specific story.”

From the first few bars of opening track “Una Vez Mas,” the album explores the possibilities of the big band’s sonic textures. Volume increases and decreases every few seconds as more instruments stack on each other. As the song continues, bebop, cool jazz, and Latin jazz grapple for the spotlight, building to a powerful finale.

“Song for Chico” is another tight orchestral jam that moves quickly through several movements, begging for several listens before the viewer can comprehend the interplay between every instrument.

“Two for One” stays turbulent for most of its 9 minute runtime, as every musician calls, responds, and calls again. Prieto shows an ability to compose cacophony sans atonality, before bringing every instrument together for an absolute harmony.

Prieto pulls an impressive trick, masking several layers of music below other sheets of sound, lending a strong replay value to Back to the Sunset.

At his Spoleto performance, the drummer will be joined by a 17-piece band — a far cry from the quintets and trios he organized for some previous works. A new “amount of texture and sound color and possibility” is added to the sound in big bands, Prieto comments. “You have much more choices and opportunities to expand ideas in many ways.”

The scope of the LP was far-reaching enough to earn Prieto a 2018 Grammy win for Best Latin Jazz Album.

And even though he’s crafted music that is unique to his personality and his cultural heritage, he finds time to step into the background. Even last year the drummer set foot on a Spoleto stage acting as a sideman, performing another composer’s music. Sure, performing is usually a fun time, but Prieto is quick to choose his own music over another person’s original compositions.

To be fair, anyone would make that decision if their sound was as thrilling as Prieto’s frenzied approach.

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