What do Eric Clapton, Quincy Jones, Taj Mahal, Paul Simon, Wynton Marsalis and Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters all have in common? They’re among the legendary musicians that came out to see The Pedrito Martinez Group at Guantanamera, a little Cuban restaurant in midtown Manhattan where the group plays several times a week. With that much talent in the audience, you have to believe there’s something special going down on stage.
And there is. It’s four musicians of virtuosic talent jamming Cuban roots music out like the jazz greats used to do to the American standards. All four band members trade high energy instrumental solos, sing and harmonize, and dance up a storm. Afro-Cuban jazz has a strong history, but as anyone coming out to the Michigan Theater Friday night will see, PMG no es la Rumba de su madre.
On Friday night’s double bill, part of University Musical Society’s winter season, The Pedrito Martinez Group will take the stage after the young Cuban pianist Alfredo Rodriguez sets the tone with his trio in his own exhilarating blend of Latin and jazz. Rodriguez’ new album The Invasion Parade co-produced by Quincy Jones, features, among other powerful artists, Pedrito Martinez himself. That’s just one example of the rich constellation of collaborations that Martinez has taken part in, including one with Eddie Palmieri and Bryan Lynch for which he won a Grammy award in 2007.
Martinez was born in Havana, Cuba, where he was grounded in a tradition of folkloric and religious music, meeting and playing with many of the great Cuban musicians. In 2000, he came to New York. The group is rounded out by percussionist Jhair Sala from Peru, electric bassist Alvaro Benavides from Venezuela, and keyboard player/vocalist, Ariacne Trujillo, also from Cuba.
“It’s a very steady lineup — it has a lot of power in the combination of the four individuals,” said Paul Siegel, the group’s manager.
Siegel explains why he so often finds himself surrounded by legendary musicians from all over the world who’ve made it their business night after night to come hear the band play.
“They’re four virtuosos, but it’s never about the technique; it’s never about the chops. Musicians can do that sometimes for one another, but it goes nowhere,” Siegel said. “They’re moving people because of the depth of what they do.”
PMG features the impressive Ariacne Trujillo. She studied classical piano for 16 years in Cuba’s great conservatories — while also singing and dancing at cabarets — and then won a scholarship for classical composition to come to the States.
“I’m always going to sound classical — everything that I am — all my techniques come from classical training,” Trujillo said. “I have a lot of influences like R&B, blues and soul music. But when you hear me play, classical music is there.”
Martinez came to music the opposite way.
“I never went to music school, because in Cuba, at that time, to get in, you needed a connection, some clout, and I never had that kind of connection,” he said in a recent interview. “But at the same time, I’m happy with the way I learned things on the street, because they teach you things you can’t learn in school.”
When the Pedrito Martinez Group is not playing at Guantanamera, they are performing all over the world. As a single mom, it can be a challenge for Trujillo to juggle.
“It’s hard to have the two things that you love be music (as) your career, and your kid ... He’s seven now and he loves everyone in the group and he would love to go on tour with me all the time; he’s the number one fan of the group. It’s a blessing that I can totally manage both.”
Larry Blumenfeld, who writes about jazz for the Wall Street Journal, has a love for the music and explains the power of the genre today.
“Afro-Cuban music and Cuban musicians have always been influential in the United States,” Blumenfeld said. “Now, there is a new generation of Cuban musicians that is exploring its tradition and its connections to the United States in new ways … a generation that has created a revolution within that context.”
Sala and Benavides are virtuosos in their own rights. Sala often switches instruments with Martinez, once his teacher, and Benavides, a scholarship student at Berkelee School of Music, has worked with alternative, fusion and free jazz bands, experiences that shine through in his confident, soaring solos. But the heart and soul of the group is Martinez.
“He has the physical skills and the magnetism to command any audience,” Blumenfeld said. “But with this quartet that he’s developed through years of weekly performances at a small restaurant, and at festivals and concert halls around the world, he’s created a vehicle where he can share all the depth of his Cuban tradition and all the ambition as a modern musician.”
You never know who you might see in the audience of the Michigan Theater Friday night…