10:30pm

Sun June 12, 2011
First Listen

First Listen: Stefon Harris, David Sanchez And Christian Scott, 'Ninety Miles'

Originally published on Wed June 22, 2011 9:54 am

If the whole world were in school, the Cubans would have a Ph.D in rhythm. Even the seemingly easy swing of the Buena Vista Social Club was based on the African polyrhythms of the two-measure clave, which is part metronome, part rhythm marker.

Before the 1960 U.S. embargo of Cuba, musicians from the States were drawn to the mysteries of the clave. Nat King Cole recorded his Spanish-language albums in Havana (with Bebo Valdes on the piano); U.S.-born Tito Puente traveled there early in his career as a bandleader to get firsthand knowledge of the rhythms that propelled his big-band charts; and scores of contemporary musicians have traveled the 90 miles of ocean that separate the tip of Florida from Cuba.

Now comes the forward-looking trio of mallet man Stefon Harris, saxophonist David Sanchez and trumpeter Christian Scott, with their own album recorded in Havana: Ninety Miles. It's the first time all three have recorded together, yet their instruments and their personalities blend together well. The camaraderie, and the excitement of a road trip, comes through loud and clear.

Rhythmically, the three musicians don't get as progressive as they have on their solo albums, but that's like complaining that today's sunset isn't as spectacular as yesterday's. The trio plays here with quartets led by the talented Cuban pianists Rember Duarte and Harold Lopez-Nussa, while producer John Burk earns honorable mention for helping the jazz musicians find their way to the clave rhythm. Burk was Tito Puente's producer for the bandleader's entire Concord Records output, and continues to produce Poncho Sanchez for the label.

Ninety miles isn't that far geographically, but politically, it can seem impossible to bridge. With this album, Harris, Sanchez and Scott join the long list of artists who have traversed that gap not with words, but with remarkable music.

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