BRATTLEBORO — The Vermont Jazz Center kicks off its 2023–24 season on Saturday, Sept. 16 at 7:30 p.m. with exciting, cutting-edge Cuban jazz, featuring pianist Dayramir González and his Habana enTRANCé quartet, which includes James Robbins on bass, Juan Chiavassa on drums, and Taka Nikaido on percussion.
With piano playing reminiscent of that of his Cuban compatriots Chucho Valdés and Alfredo Rodriguez, González developed blazing technique through rigorous practicing in the classical tradition. He's supercharged it by an embodied sense of internalized rhythms.
González applies to those skills a profound understanding of jazz harmony, resulting in a performance style that is both forward thinking and respectful of tradition.
He is also a percussionist whose music serves as a living reminder of how drumming was a critical element that gave the enslaved peoples in the Americas an essential tool in their efforts to maintain their spirits and culture.
González is the whole package - charisma, talent, good taste, fascinating concepts, and authenticity, all wrapped up in a grooving sound that makes audiences want to dance.
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González studied initially with Valdés's sister, Mayra Caridad Valdés, and then continued in the esteemed Centro Nacional de Escuelas de Arte de Cuba (the National Art Schools of Cuba), earning his "monster technique" - a description from one reviewer - by fortifying his given talent with hours of classical study, six to eight hours a day.
At the age of 16, González joined former Irakere member Oscar Valdes's Afro-Cuban jazz ensemble Diákara, and he immersed himself in timba music of the highest level.
González has twice won first place in Havana's Jo Jazz Festival and earned three Cubadisco Awards, considered the Grammys of Cuba.
He attended Berklee College of Music as the first Cuban national Presidential Scholar and performed at Carnegie Hall as one of the representatives of the up-and-coming generation of Afro-Cuban jazz pianists in their Series.
As a young man, González toured the U.S. and Europe with the father and son dynasty of Cuban piano: Bebo and Chucho Valdés. He was mentored by these two legendary musicians, the most important living exponents of Cuban piano music at that time.
In conversations and lessons, González deepened his knowledge about the broad expanse of Cuban popular music and how to channel it through the piano (which he considers an extension of the drum).
He learned from Bebo Valdés about the rich, historical Cuban piano repertoire of son, mambo, and cha-cha-chá harkening back to Bebo's association with the legendary Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona.
González was also strongly influenced by the younger Chucho Valdés's modern approach to the piano and composition and the dramatic impact it had on the direction of Cuban music in general.
Chucho's group, Irakere, was one of the most significant ensembles to shift the weight of Cuban music from salsa to timba. One of González's recordings as a leader is a tribute to Juan Formell and Los Van Van, a timba supergroup whose style and popularity grew from the seeds planted by Chucho Valdés and Irakere.
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Dayramir González understands the Cuban musical structures on both micro and macro levels - from its historical roots to its modern, urban, and electric sounds. He also is keenly aware of music's impact on the cultural and social soul of the nation. Many of his original compositions use facets of the time-honored styles of Cuban music as building blocks and referential blueprints.
But as a conceptualist and creative person with a voice all his own, González's music demonstrates the integration of all aspects of Cuban music, from folkloric drumming to its connection to newer styles that include hip-hop and electronics. His repertoire demonstrates a deep knowledge and respect for the origin of stylistic details and a delight in moving the tradition forward.
In a conversation with Brian Pace, González discussed the presence of rhythm and emotion in Cuban music and how those two factors serve as catalysts for creativity.
"One of the biggest blessings we have in Cuba is that we still carry the legacy of the Yoruba tribe, it's still very alive," he said. "I'm talking about those who came from West Africa - Benin, Congo, Nigeria."
"When our ancestors came as slaves to Cuba they were able to establish themselves and express their joys and sorrows through the tambor (hand drums). Many of generations of musicians used drums before we had the piano to express how happy or how sad we feel.
"In the Rumba we have Yambú, a slowed-down, crying music that conveyed frustration and disappointment. You can see those emotions in the movement of the body, and you hear the emotion in the playing of the tambor and the singing. You notice that [early on] the person was able to communicate these feelings through the drum and voice.
"And then - it was transferred to the piano. I'm a percussionist who plays piano who has the blessing to understand harmony and to have control of the craft. The piano is a percussive instrument that channels rhythm through the lens of harmony and scales - that's the craft."
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For the VJC concert, González will be playing the Steinway concert grand in a quartet setting with bassist James Robbins, a former student and junior instructor of the Vermont Jazz Center who is now an established player on the New York scene.
Robbins has released one album as a leader and played with Clark Terry, Billy Taylor, George Benson, James Moody, Freddie Hubbard, Eric Lewis, Johnny O'Neal, Gerald Clayton, Sullivan Fortner, Joel Frahm, and many others.
He also played with the Colombian electro-group Delsonido and the rock band Thank You Scientist. Robbins teaches part-time at the American School of Modern Music in Paris.
The group's drummer is Argentinian-born Juan Chiavassa, who graduated from Berklee College of Music after attending Escuela de Música Contemporánea in Buenos Aires.
In addition to González, he has worked with Mike Stern, Paquito D'Rivera, Esperanza Spalding, Omar Rodríguez-López, George Garzone, David Kikoski, Leo Genovese, Benito Gonzalez, Jeremy Pelt, Eric Alexander, Leni Stern, and Bob Moses. He also performed on The Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon with multi-Grammy winning rappers Residente and Bad Bunny. He has released two records as a composer and producer.
Taka Nikaido will be playing percussion. He has performed with Carlos Vives, Yosvany Terry, Terence Blanchard, Jon Secada, Darren Barrett, Totó la Momposina, Paquito D'Rivera, Arturo O'Farrill, and others.
Nikaido received a Best Foreign Entrant award in La Fiesta del Tambor in Cuba. He has performed at the Montreal International Jazz Festival, the Monterey Jazz Festival, and others. He has recorded numerous CD projects and is one of the soundtrack creators of the video games Final Fantasy XV and Dr. Stone.
The press for his concert at Carnegie Hall claimed "Dayramir González can be added to the pantheon of distinctive Cuban jazz voices [...] setting the Latin jazz world on fire in America." Come see and hear for yourself the amazing level of his infectious performing.
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Eugene Uman is director of the Vermont Jazz Center. The Commons ' Deeper Dive column gives artists, arts organizations, and other nonprofits elbow room to write in first person and/or be unabashedly opinionated, passionate, and analytical about their own creative work and events.
This The Arts column was submitted to The Commons.