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Pedrito Martinez Group: Wall Street Journal review

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Two Afro-Cuban Offshoots
Oct. 16, 2013 4:59 p.m. ET

Soon after pianist Michele Rosewoman moved from Oakland, Calif., to New York in 1978, she felt her parallel musical paths-jazz and Afro-Cuban folklore-merge into a compelling whole. Once percussionist Pedrito Martinez arrived in Union City, N.J., in 1998, he found widespread demand for the rhythms and chants he'd mastered in Havana's Cayo Hueso neighborhood; he began crafting his own musical style, grounded in the Afro-Cuban religious and rumba traditions of his childhood, and influenced by the best players he met in New York.

Two striking new CDs from these musicians showcase possibilities for music built upon Afro-Cuban tradition, informed by jazz, and realized through personal discovery. "Michele Rosewoman's New Yor-Uba: A Musical Celebration of Cuba in America" (Advance Dance Disques) is the debut recording of a project the pianist created 30 years ago. "The Pedrito Martinez Group" (Motéma Music) is the first studio CD from Mr. Martinez, who is a key member of Ms. Rosewoman's group, and whose wildly original quartet demands its own spotlight.

Ms. Rosewoman, 60, first presented her 14-piece New Yor-Uba at Manhattan's Public Theater in 1983. Then as now, it was startling for its balance of unfettered improvisation and undiluted Cuban folklore, and especially its use of batá, the two-headed drums associated with Yoruba religious ceremonies. Ms. Rosewoman's compositions, based on chants and rhythms, grew from her studies with Orlando "Puntilla" Ríos, a Cuban percussionist whose arrival in New York in 1980 had profound impact, and who died in 2008. Yet the music also reflects an open-minded jazz tradition Ms. Rosewoman absorbed from musicians such as alto saxophonist Oliver Lake and tuba player Howard Johnson, both New Yor-Uba members since its start.

Time has benefited Ms. Rosewoman's ideas. Her 1983 group bridged two distinct communities. The current edition includes musicians, such as bassist Yunior Terry and drummer Adam Cruz, drawn from a generation fluent in both jazz and Afro-Cuban dialects. The new recording highlights stirring details-especially the interplay of the group's three percussionists. The music sounds like something very old, which it contains, and something still evolving, which it is. Sometimes it achieves moments of pure and novel pleasure, as on "Where Water Meets Sky (Yemaya)," when horn improvisations float above chants, only to dissolve into the accelerating fury of batá drumming.

Even within New Yor-Uba's collective statement, Mr. Martinez stands out for both his agility as a percussionist and his voice, which sounds simultaneously searing and comforting. Since moving to the U.S., Mr. Martinez, now 40, has recorded and performed with fellow Cuban musicians, jazz players and pop stars, including Paul Simon and Sting. On the recent CD "Rumba de la Isla" (Calle 54), featuring an all-star cast, he transformed the legacy of the Spanish flamenco singer Camarón de la Isla into something distinctly original, and Cuban.

Yet Mr. Martinez's true identity and full collaborative powers are best revealed by the quartet he's honed since 2008 through his three-nights-a-week residency at the midtown Manhattan Cuban restaurant Guantanamera. The band's members all sing, often in four-part harmony. Bassist Alvaro Benavides and Jhair Sala, who plays cowbell and bongos, share a startlingly intuitive rapport with Mr. Martinez. Ariacne Trujillo's piano playing blends Cuban conservatory training and modern-jazz literacy, and she sings a persuasive blues; in another group, she might be the standout. Playing conga drums, cajón (a wooden box drum) and sometimes batá, Mr. Martinez is the group's rhythmic engine and most daring soloist. For him, mastery begets reinvention. He personalizes the guaguancó rhythm of the heroic rumba group Los Muñequitos de Matanzas on "Lengua de Obbara," updates thesongo rhythm of the pioneering Cuban dance band Los Van Van with his composition "Conciencia," and finds Afro-Cuban soul within Robert Johnson's "Traveling Riverside Blues." Yet his references and rhythms are mostly woven within musical blends too complex to define.

The Guantanamera gig is a magnet for local musicians and visiting stars, including those featured on the CD (among others, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and drummer Steve Gadd ). They're drawn by word of Mr. Martinez's preternatural skills. They keep returning for this group's dizzying rhythmic webs, its songs within songs, and the thrill of real Cuban rumba transformed into something as hip and irresistible as great pop. Physical talents notwithstanding, Mr. Martinez's most potent gifts may be his ideas.  SEE WSJ PAGE