MY BASS LIKES TO DANCE
by Ned Sublette
For Mi Bajo Danzón, his debut as a leader, Yunior Terry wanted to make you dance. But there’s more to it than that.
“I want people to know where I’m coming from,” he said [in Spanish, my translation]. “I want them to know this legado [legacy] that I bring with me.”
You might know Yunior Terry from all the jazz albums he’s played bass on. You might have seen him on stage in any of a number of countries and especially in New York, with any number of bandleaders and especially with his brother Yosvany Terry. “But someone has to maintain that legado too,” he says, “so it won’t get lost. That’s what I’m interested in.”
If you’re Cuban, you know Yunior as Don Pancho Terry’s son – which is to say, he’s a child of Cuba’s great tradition of dance music. “We grew up thanks to música bailable,” says Yunior. “That’s what my papá always cultivated.” Though the elder Terry is famous in Cuba as a shekeré player, he’s also a violinist in one of Cuba’s most respected charangas, Las Maravillas de Florida.
The Terry brothers grew up amid the heat and spirituality of Cuban popular dances, but also with formal training that for Yunior began at seven in his home town of Camagüey. He graduated in 1994 from Havana’s ENA (Escuela Nacional de las Artes) with a double major in violin and bass, and was for two years a member of the Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional. Eight years and a puddle-jump later, he had switched to jazz and got a B.A. at Cal Arts, studying under Charlie Haden, among others.
Being a classically trained player who’s a killer jazz musician as well as a skilled composer is not unheard of in Cuban dance music. In Cuba, popular dance is a complex motor, played live by an orchestra of wood, skin, and metal, for dancers whose bodies are moving in polyrhythm, calling on historical traditions that the dancers know, and offering composers a wide range of expression.
The group’s name -- Yunior translates Son de Altura as Son from Above -- comes from the lyric of Ignacio Piñeiro’s “Suavecito.” “The son is the basis of all of it,” says Yunior. “The cadence of son is very specific. There are very few people who can really play it. I wanted to include on this record the great musicians in this city who cultivate that cadence. We have this root in common – the son.”
The group’s been gigging around New York since 2007, and you can hear how naturally they elaborate a variety of styles from the Cuban legacy of dance music. This album would be a classic if only for giving us a listen to how pianist Osmany Paredes plays tumbao (the groove, shared among piano, bass, congas) with Yunior and veteran conguero Vicente Sánchez, together with Mauricio Herrera on timbal, bongó, and güiro. Son de Altura has three trumpets, but Yunior’s a violinist who grew up a charanguero, and the band collapses the two classic lineups of Cuban dance bands (trumpet-driven conjunto vs. flute-and-violins charanga) into one while maintaining the nuances of each. They take all the repetitions in the danzón, which is infrequently danced in modern Cuba (though it is still popular in Mexico, where Yunior’s participated in it) and then slip naturally into timba, the horns-and-percussion-heavy virtuosic big-band style that dominated Yunior’s teenage years.
Listen to “Tumbao Randy,” which reunites the separated-at-birth guaguancó and danzón, and also evokes the sound of the brass bands that played in Cuban towns on Sunday morning. “Canta Mi Bajo un Danzón” is a nod to Israel López “Cachao,” in whose wake the danzón became imprinted as a bassist’s platform, as well as to Orestes Urfé, a major figure in Cuban bass pedagogy. “Traigo Cha-Cha-Chá” is dedicated to Enrique Jorrín, the violinist who created the easy-to-dance style that rocked the world, and it’s sung by David Oquendo, a fine singer captured here in an excellent performance. “Mambo No. 7” brings together mambo and funk, because Yunior lives in New York.
Besides making you dance, Son de Altura might also make you laugh. Yunior’s a lyricist with a satirical bent -- from “Doctor de Madrugada,” about a doctor making a wee-hours booty call, to “Astronauta,” in which a lady astronaut’s husband complains she’s always gone to the moon (in a style that lovingly recalls the great moments of ‘70s-‘80s Orquesta Rumbavana), to “Fiesta María,” a classic Cuban complaint about a party without enough food and rum.
And what are we to make of the title Mi Bajo Danzón? Yunior laughs. “My bass likes to dance,” he says. “It’s one more dancer, out there on the floor.”
Ned Sublette is the author of Cuba and Its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo.