Gabriel Alegr�a & The Afro-Peruvian Sextet – Pucusana

Gabriel Alegr�a & The Afro-Peruvian Sextet
Saponegro Records – August 2010

The growling clarion call evokes old jazz, Louis Armstrong, and New Orleans, but the cries in Spanish, the percussion, and the gentle, looping groove takes us to a different place. Both familiar and fresh, those first bars on Peruvian trumpeter, composer, and bandleader Gabriel Alegr�a’s Pucusana, are also a declaration of principle of Afro-Peruvian jazz music.
“Taita Guaranguito,” is a traditional Afro-Peruvian folk song, smartly reinterpreted as a jazz piece. In fusion, the sum is often less than the parts. Here, it’s a celebration of a common spirit. “What we discovered over the years working in this music, is that there is a certain similar energy between pre-1940s jazz and Afro-Peruvian music,” says Alegr�a. “There is a connection, something about their spirit, so when you [bring them together], it feels really natural. We don’t play in a traditional jazz style, but it’s not about harmonies or a certain rhythm. It’s about the intention in the playing. There is a joy, a positive energy, that is present in the jazz esthetic of musicians like Louis Armstrong.  This same esthetic is also present in Afro-Peruvian music.”
“If you go to a traditional pe�a (a gathering where Afro-Peruvian music is played) or a jarana (a musical party, typically in someone’s home) in Lima, you’ll see there the energy you see in the old films about jazz, that energy of the audience participating, shouting, really connecting with the musician,” says Alegr�a.  “Even though our sound is modern, when you see the band perform, what you get is very much the traditional Afro-Peruvian energy. The audience is really part of what we do. There is a lot of shouting encouragement. There are specific hand clap patterns to various grooves that the audience does in traditional shows and we make sure the audience knows these patterns and participates. The energy is always there, and that energy is very much part of the Afro Peruvian tradition. We are just using it in a modern context.”
Pucusana is Alegr�a�s second recording with his Afro-Peruvian Sextet which features the leader on trumpet and flugelhorn and originals by Alegr�a and saxophonist Laura Andrea Legu�a, as well as two traditional Afro-Peruvian songs and an innovative reading of Rogers and Hammerstein’s “My Favorite Things” arranged by Alegr�a. But while he has done most of the writing and arranging, Alegr�a gives its members much credit for the final result.
“Our percussionist, Freddy “Huevito” Lobat�n is the super star of our band,” says Alegr�a.  “He provides us with the all-important connection to the Afro-Peruvian tradition. Guitarist Yuri Ju�rez employs the vocabulary of traditional criollo music in a contemporary harmonic setting, and our drummer Hugo Alc�zar is the pioneer of drumming in Afro-Peruvian jazz music. All of the patterns he plays on the drum kit are derived from individual percussion parts played by traditional instruments. The sound we generate in the group is very much a collective effort and a coming together of very distinct personalities.”
And for Pucusana, Alegria also got the support of keyboardists and composers Russell Ferrante (who appears on “Taita Guaranguito,” “Pucusana,” “Piso 19,” and “Mono De Nazca”) and Arturo O’Farril, who contributes on “My Favorite Things.”
Gabriel Alegria was born in 1970 into an important artistic family in Lima, Per�. His grandfather Ciro Alegr�a was an influential novelist, journalist and politician in the 1940s and 50s.  His father, Alonso is Per�’s most acclaimed playwright and theater director. He discovered jazz by listening to records, and then got involved as a player at the National Conservatory, where Martin Joseph, an English jazz pianist, was leading a workshop. Since, he has received a master’s degree from the City University of New York and a doctorate in jazz studies from the University of Southern California.
“The first trumpeter I discovered was Miles Davis and the electric things he was doing in the 1980s — and then I went backwards, finding what he and others had done before. That’s how I entered jazz.”
Not surprisingly, echoes of Miles Davis can be heard throughout Pucusana, most notably in “Mono de Nazca,” an original piece that features Alegr�a playing with a Harmon mute over a traditional festejo rhythm. The juxtaposition creates a curious sort of Miles-in-Lima effect.
Alegr�a muses “Miles is a big point of reference for me – his spirit, his willingness to explore ideas, to go forward. Everything that we can do to acknowledge Miles, we do.”
Throughout Pucusana, the music has a distinct, sensual bouncy groove of Afro-Peruvian music. “In this album we use variations of two rhythms: the festejo and the land�. All the fast songs in the album – “Mono de Nazca,” “Pucusana,” “Piso 19” —  are festejos.  “Taita Guaranguito,” and “Toro Mata,” another traditional piece, are land�s. It’s a slower groove.”
Being firmly rooted in Africa, explains Alegr�a, Afro-Peruvian music has no clave, the underlying five beat pattern in much Afro-Cuban and Afro-Caribbean music. Instead the styles within Afro-Peruvian music have many variations but, like the African-rooted American jazz music, no clave.
“It’s like we are having a conversation about jazz and you say: ‘Is that swing? And that slow groove, is that swing too? And that’s medium swing?’ This is exactly the same,” explains Alegr�a. “It’s not a rule that you have to play festejos exactly the same every time. It has many, many, many variants just as there are variants of swing patterns in a ride cymbal for a drummer. So all the songs in Pucusana that are in festejo patterns are all different. Even ‘My Favorite Things’ is done as a festejo, but it’s in a minor mode, slightly slower than a regular festejo in major.” Also, “Piso 19,” anchored in a festejo groove, at one point breaks into double time swing and features very effective straight ahead blowing.
Alegr�a has worked with The Peruvian National Symphony and artists such as Maria Schneider, Placido Domingo, Kenny Werner, Ingrid Jensen, Tierney Sutton, Natalie Cole, Bill Watrous, John Thomas and Alex Acu�a.
But with Pucusana, he firmly establishes himself as an artist to watch in one of the most important trends in contemporary jazz: The development around the world of a fusion of jazz and indigenous styles. It’s a variant that draws from the essential elements and practices in jazz while also incorporating some of the repertoire, vocabulary and instruments of the local music.
“For me this music is the result of an evolution over time, ” says Alegr�a. “Growing up, while at the conservatory, there was a group of us in that jazz workshop, listening to Afro-Peruvian music, artists like [singer] Eva Ayll�n and some World Music experiments like [the group] Hijos del Sol.  Those were our reference points – and then [those in that group] we have gone in different directions, using jazz language in very specific ways. “We’ve been working on this since the late 80s and it has taken awhile, there’s been a lot of trial and error, but now we have a defined sound that we are proud to call Afro-Peruvian jazz music.”