Bombajazzeando debuts Puerto Rican music plus jazz at Vermont Jazz Center
Saúl Peñalosa and Brendalíz Cepeda

Bombajazzeando debuts Puerto Rican music plus jazz at Vermont Jazz Center

BRATTLEBORO — Bombajazzeando and the Julian Gerstin Sextet will appear in their debut concert on Friday, July 22, at 8 p.m., at the Vermont Jazz Center, 72 Cotton Mill Hill.

“Lively and joyous, Bombajazzeando is jazz plus Puerto Rican bomba - an African-based tradition of drums, singing, and dancing,” say organizers.

A collaboration of the Springfield, Massachusetts-based group Bomba de Aquí and composer Julian Gerstin, Bombajazzeando and the Julian Gerstin Sextet combines the bomba drummers and singers with a jazz lineup of trumpet, trombone, saxophone, piano, and bass.

And dancers, the heart of bomba tradition, are featured.

“Both jazz and bomba are musics of connection,” Gerstin said in a news release. “One musician calls, others respond. There are a lot of smiles.”

The Springfield group is led by wife-and-husband team Brendalíz Cepeda and Saul Peñalosa, who for the past seven years have been bringing their tradition to Western Massachusetts stages, schools, and community events. Cepeda is the granddaughter of bomba great Rafael Cepeda, who began reviving the tradition in the 1960s and is the composer of many still-beloved songs.

Cepeda first appeared on stage with her granddad as a dancer at age five, and has been teaching and living the tradition ever since. In addition to Cepeda and Peñalosa, Bombajazzeando includes lead singer Choco García, a specialist in the Puerto Rican plena style; drummer Gerardo Rosario Tapia, who builds the group's beautiful instruments; and other dancers and percussionists from the Puerto Rican community.

Gerstin joined Bomba de Aquí five years ago as a supporting drummer. For him it was a natural evolution, as he has spent his musical career exploring music of Africa and the Caribbean; living, learning, and performing in Ghana, Martinique, and Cuba; and working with master musicians from Brazil, Nigeria, and South Africa.

“Working with Saul and Brendalíz has been a joy,” he says. “We immediately hit it off not just musically but as friends. They are no-BS, joy-bringing sharers of the music they love.”

Joining bomba rhythms with jazz was also a natural step, Gerstin explains. “I wrote a couple of songs for my jazz group with bomba rhythms, and that worked well, so I thought, 'why not bring in the real masters to play with us?' Actually, 'why not turn that around and let the bomba musicians and dancers be the center?' So I also arranged jazz accompaniment for some of their traditional songs, took these to Brendalíz and Saul, and bang!”

Meanwhile, Gerstin's longterm jazz group (“the creatively-named Julian Gerstin Sextet,” as he puts it) returns after two years of Covid hibernation. As befits Gerstin's musical experiences, the group's jazz is deeply connected to music from around the world.

“I'm excited by so much music,” Gerstin states. “I learn traditional rhythms and instruments and then I want to play those in a jazz setting. So I try to write music that's authentic to the spirit of those traditions and serves as a springboard for the improvisors.”

For example, a new composition based on the classical Arabic sama'i form mostly follows the that form's complex structural rules, but adds passages of improvisation.

“And where sama'i traditionally slips into a waltz feel near the end, I've turned it into a big bluesy blowout,” Gerstin adds.

The sextet includes Eugene Uman, piano; Anna Patton, clarinet; Don Anderson, trumpet; Wes Brown, bass; Ben James, drum set; and Gerstin on multiple percussion instruments.

“We are so happy to be playing together again,” Gerstin states. “It's more connection. Music is what human beings do. People music.”

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