Pulling In the Same Direction: Michele Rosewoman & New Yor-Uba Celebrates 40 Years
Ah, to be on a team again. I grew up playing baseball in high school and college, and since those days I’ve missed the camaraderie and bonding that comes from the pursuit of a common goal. The last two days, spent in service to pianist and composer Michele Rosewoman and her New Yor-Uba Ensemble, felt like I was part of a team again.
With the help of a New England Foundation for the Arts grant, Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares hosted Rosewoman’s 11-piece juggernaut on October 23 and 24. On Tuesday, the musicians and our family of music lovers organized a transcendent day of music and scholarship in Holyoke and Springfield. We introduced our visitors to the wonders of western Massachusetts, cooked for the musicians and relied on Jazz Shares members to offer home stays for the band. Sharing meals and roofs brought us together in furtherance of art, culture and community. Sometimes it takes a village to produce a concert.
With the help of scholars Ivor Miller and Priscilla Maria Page, we organized an afternoon presentation at Holyoke Media, a beautiful, well equipped new community space. A combination lecture, interview and musical demonstration, the event focused on the rich history of Afro-Cuban folkloric music and Rosewoman’s innovations bringing that tradition into the jazz world. The program featured Rosewoman, along with singers and percussionists Román Díaz, Rafael Monteagudo, Abraham Rodriguez and Roger Consiglio.
The evening concert at the Community Music School of Springfield was a crowning achievement for Jazz Shares. That it fell on my 69th birthday gave special resonance to the proceedings and confirmed the rightness of my chosen career path.
Playing selections from their two releases: Hallowed and 30 Years-A Musical Celebration of Cuba in America, New Yor-Uba delivered a 90-minute tour de force, bringing together the power of the spiritual realm, the virtuosity of accomplished musicians, and the inspiration of a visionary composer and organizer.
Since New Yor-Uba’s 1983 debut at the Public Theater in New York, Rosewoman’s concept has continued to get tighter, the arrangements more elaborate, and the vision clearer. She originally built the band around the legendary Orlando “Puntilla” Rios, a percussionist and a major holder of Afro-Cuban cultural and religious knowledge. His last public performance with New Yor-Uba was a 2007 Magic Triangle Series concert I produced at UMass. Since that time, the role of linchpin has been carried by Román Díaz, “El Maestro”, who not only anchors the rhythm section, but grounds the ensemble with his extensive understanding of the roots of African music in Cuba. He is perhaps the leading practitioner of Afro-Cuban religious music outside of Cuba.
The core of New Yor-Uba is the percussion section: pianist Michele Rosewoman, bassist Yunior Terry, trap drummer Robby Ameen, and hand drummers Román Díaz, Rafael Monteagudo, Abraham Rodriguez, Roger Consiglio. The interlocking rhythms of the three sacred, two-headed batá drums were integral to the music, as were the vocals of Díaz, Monteagudo, Rodriguez, Consiglio and Rosewoman who sang beautifully in praise of the orishas (the spirits of the Yoruba people of West Africa and the diaspora).
Those percussionists formed the bedrock upon which Rosewoman’s very hip horn arrangements and the individual soloists rested. Those horn players: Alejandro Berti (trumpet), Greg Osby (alto, soprano sax), Stacy Dillard (tenor sax) and Chris Washburne (trombone, tuba), soared over the traditional chants and rhythms offered in honor of the deities.
The musical highlights in Springfield were many. At one point during “The Heart of It (for Chango)”, the band dropped out, leaving the batá drummers spinning endless permutations of perfectly overlapping rhythms. The crowd burst when the band reentered was loud and justly deserved. The concluding selection, “Vamp For Ochun”, an oft recorded Rosewoman original that serves as an unofficial theme song, had a funky angular drive that brought another eruption from the 100 gathered. The horn soloists were all outstanding, especially the legendary Greg Osby and the up-and-coming Stacy Dillard.
All evening the tempos changed, the grooves morphed, and riffs entered and exited with precision. Band members told me how clear and well written Rosewoman’s charts were. So a few rehearsals and two September performances at Dizzy’s Club in New York were all that was needed for the band to gel. After their visit to western Massachusetts, they had multi-day stops at Boston University and the First Congregational Church in Old Lyme, CT. What a wonderful way to celebrate the band’s 40th anniversary.
Michele Rosewoman, who turned 70 in March, is a pioneer in the fusion of Latin music and jazz. That tradition, of course, is woven into the very essence of jazz, what Jelly Roll Morton called “the Latin tinge”. In the 1940s, the innovations of Chano Pozo, Dizzy Gillespie, Machito, Mario Bauza, Chico O’Farrill, and others, injected new rhythmic complexity into jazz. Rosewoman’s contribution has been to bring the sacred rhythms and chants of Santaria, an important Cuban religious practice, into the jazz realm.
At the CMSS they performed, “Natural Light (for Obatala)”, where the deep chants, the ancient drums, the snap crackle of hi-hat and snare, the modern horn arrangements, along with Rosewoman’s jazz drenched piano, all combined to produce a true melding of cultures. No wonder she was just honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award by M3 (Mutual Mentorship for Musicians) at the Jazz Museum of Harlem.
M3 was founded by vocalists and activists Jen Shu and Sara Serpa as a means to elevate women and non-binary musicians. How appropriate then, to honor Rosewoman, a woman who has created her own thing, who has persevered in sharing her vision of preserving and advancing the rich tradition of Afro-Cuban jazz.