Graded on a Curve:
The Complete Cuban
Jam Sessions

Like the finest in archival collections, Craft Recordings’ The Complete Cuban Jam Sessions tells multiple tales, dominant among them the saga of five excellent and at-times astounding LPs documenting improvised jam sessions, or descargas, issued between 1956-’64; two are led by Julio Gutiérrez with one each by Niño Rivera, Israel “Cachao” López, and José Antonio Fajardo. Other stories include the development of Cuba’s first record label Panart as founded by Ramón S. Sabat, the rich portraiture of Cuban music’s stylistic diversity (including rumba, mambo, and cha-cha-chá), and the praiseworthy dedication of the set’s co-producer Judy Cantor-Navas. On 5LP or 5CD, it’s out November 9.

Although the five records constituting The Complete Cuban Jam Sessions have been appropriately lauded as milestones, that doesn’t mean they’ve been appreciated by anywhere close to a fitting number of listeners. The reasons are a blend of specific circumstances and the familiar. For starters, while Panart was a successful operation, it was also not a giant enterprise, and when Cuba’s Communist government took possession of the label in 1961, Sabat and his family relocated to Miami.

From there, with the exception of LP and 8-track reissues made by Sabat’s wife Julia and son Galo which were marketed to Miami’s Cuban exile community (they retained around 80% of the master tapes), the catalog was essentially out of commission. It was eventually purchased in the early ‘80s, but then it took roughly a decade for product to hit the market, and to say the CDs were cut-rate is a fair assessment. The next buyer reportedly did a better job with presentation, but not distribution.

Those initial discs, if not up to a standard the music deserves, still lit a spark in writer and Latin music and culture expert Judy Cantor-Navas. She was the fuse that led to the explosiveness of this box set; her article in the Miami New Times published the day after Christmas in 1996 (and still available to read on the newspaper’s website) offers a wonderfully detailed history of Panart, and these sessions in particular. In the text, there are considerations of these sessions as not only amongst the greatest recordings in Panart’s catalog, but in Cuban music overall.

To understand why, one need only sample the first two volumes as directed by pianist and bandleader Julio Gutiérrez. While the phrase “jam session” in rock terms reliably translates to “not very good,” this doesn’t apply to descarga, or at least not this batch. Cut at Panart studios, the session for Vols. 1 & 2 features both Gutiérrez and Pedro Jústiz (aka “Peruchín”) on piano and Walfredo de los Reyes, Sr. on drums, plus assorted members of Gutiérrez’s working band, and the jazz-tinged results are a loose (nothing was written down) but focused delight.

If jazzy, the exploration of various Cuban dance styles is the main focus, including rumba, cha-cha-chá and mambo; for Vol. 2, there’s even a closing melding (fusion!) of rumba and cha-cha-chá in “Batá Rhythm.” Cuban music is simultaneously complex and subtle, and for dabblers it can sometimes take a while to really get struck by the bands’ abilities as groove machines, which might read as odd given the dance objective, but hopefully the point is understood. Anyway, this observation isn’t applicable here, as “Theme on Perfidia” gets things cooking right from the start.

It and “Cimmarón” are amongst Vol. 1’s highlights, especially the latter, as it offers the appealing Afro-Caribbean scat singing of Francisco Fellove. Altogether, the multifaceted nature of the selections makes Vol. 1 an introductory smash, with the percussion workout “Theme for Conga” providing a vigorous finale. But as fine as the first LP’s seven cuts are, its follow-up raises the bar even further with “Jam Session (Descarga Caliente),” its nearly 17 side-long minutes loaded with magnificent horn soloing, infectious group vocals, rock-solid piano, and unflagging rhythmic drive for the ages.

Hard to top? Yeah. But the flip doesn’t disappoint, and perhaps The Complete Cuban Jam Sessions’ strongest overall attribute is how the three subsequent volumes don’t either. Vol. 3 retains the jazziness but switches the leadership role to El Niño Rivera, famed for his skill on the tres (a Cuban guitar). While trumpeter Alejandro “El Negro” Vivar is retained from the Gutiérrez sets, the rest of the participants are fresh to the proceedings, and along with back-to-back dives into the son montuno style, an immediate distinction is the smaller size of the band.

Along with piano, rhythm section and tres, there’s the three-horn line of Vivar, saxophonist Emilio Peñalver, and flautist Richard Egües. Although more sax and less flute would’ve been nice, the three all play terrifically, as does Rivera on tres, especially during the crosspollination “Cha-cha-chá Montuno,” though he’s not a flash player. “Guaguanco Comparsa” kicks into high rhythmic gear for the close and even quotes Duke Ellington along the way. Nice.

Vol. 4 was led by bandleader, bassist, and mambo innovator Israel “Cachao” López. Titled Descargas Cubanas in Cuba and translated to Cuban Jam Sessions in Miniature for its US release, the LP features shorter track-lengths intended to secure radio play and the release of singles (there were four). This may seem like a potential weakening factor, but just the opposite plays out across its dozen selections, in part because the harder-hitting hand drumming brings a rise of intensity throughout.

The size of the band also increases, bring back baritone sax from Vol. 2 and introducing trombone for the first two selections of side one. The horn players from Vol. 3 also return, with Vivar getting a sweet showcase in “Goza Mi Trompeta.” And while vocals are a constant element across these volumes, they are particularly robust in Cachao’s scheme. Described as having grown in stature to “mythic proportions” over the decades, Vol. 4 was inducted into the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry and the Latin Grammy Hall of Fame in 2013. It’s not difficult to understand why.

When multi-edition sets pile up the entries, they frequently either lessen in vitality or find the contents hardening into a dish best served to hardcore genre aficionados, but that’s not the case with José Fajardo’s volume. This is especially noteworthy as the 1957 session was interrupted by the Communist takeover and not completed until ’64 in NYC, where the bandleader and flautist had relocated.

It can feel petty to mention it, but the preponderance of flute moves on this concluding installment results in this writer enjoying Vol. 5 the least out of the bunch, but folks should take that as a personal bias rather than faulty execution, as Fajardo’s jazzy workouts on the stick are amongst the better these ears have absorbed. The bottom line is that Vol. 5 completes this intertwining narrative quite nicely, with the whole shaping up as one of the sweetest (and wholly necessary) reissues of 2018. Anybody who loves the intermingling of rhythm, melodiousness, improvisational verve and finesse shouldn’t miss it.

The Cuban Jam Session, under the direction of Julio Gutiérrez, Vol. 1

The Cuban Jam Session, under the direction of Julio Gutiérrez, Vol. 2

The Cuban Jam Session, under the direction of Niño Rivera, Vol. 3

Cuban Jam Sessions in Miniature: “Descargas” (directed by Israel “Cachao” López)

Cuban Jam Session Vol. 5, with Fajardo and His All-Stars

The Complete Cuban Jam Sessions

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