Michele Rosewoman at the Jazz Piano Christmas show at Kennedy Center


Jazz pianist Michele Rosewoman. (Chris Drukker/Chris Drukker)
November 29, 2013

An argument can be made — and indeed has been made by the mastery of Jelly Roll Morton and Art Tatum, Duke Ellington and Count Basie, Earl Hines and Thelonious Monk — that great jazz starts with the piano. For Michele Rosewoman, it started with a particular pianist in her hometown of Oakland, Calif. — local legend Ed Kelly. “He never said much, but he had a unique voice,” she said of her mentor, who died in 2005. “He touched the piano in a particular way that changed the air in the room.”

As Rosewoman developed her jazz skills during her late teens, going to school on the name players she heard at San Francisco’s Keystone Korner, she nurtured an equally strong interest in Cuban folkloric music. She played congas and fell under the spell of the sacred bata drums, with which these great, centuries-old, African-derived sounds “start.” Undeterred by the fact that women were discouraged from playing the batas, and recorded music from Cuba was scarce, “shared by a handful of us like rare jewels,” she committed herself to learning the “profound rhythmic language” of the “talking” drums.

“I didn’t know anyone else who was deeply into both jazz and Cuban music,” said Rosewoman. When she moved to New York in 1978, it was only a matter of time before she combined the open, improvisational feel and flow of modern jazz and the tightly ordered, drums-and-chants system of traditional Afro-Cuban music. Though it took her 30 years to document her groundbreaking New Yor-Uba band on record, it was worth the wait. Released in September, the exuberant “30 Years: A Musical Celebration of Cuba in America” is one of the standout albums of 2013.

When Rosewoman performs Dec. 7 at the Kennedy Center as part of a “Jazz Piano Christmas” concert featuring the great singer-pianist Andy Bey, postbop veteran Stanley Cowell and young New Orleans stalwart Sullivan Fortner, she likely will be more attuned to Saint Nick than the Orishas, the deities to which Nigeria’s transplanted Yoruban culture pays tribute through the batas. Her solo set will include Donny Hathaway’s “This Christmas” and Deniece Williams’s gospel-tinged “They Say.”

But rest assured that Rosewoman’s Cuban influences, as well as the jazz deities who have shaped her playing — including Bud Powell, Ray Charles and Herbie Hancock — will be in the mix. At this point, her sound is so unified, she couldn’t separate the styles it incorporates if she tried.

Though she doesn’t often perform solo, she thrives on the format. “I can play in ways I can’t in other settings,” she said. “The pacing is completely open. I’m never locked into one place. You have to control yourself, though or you can overplay in a minute.”

The 60-year-old Rosewoman, whose petite stature and soft beauty belie the intensity and drive she brings to the piano and her parallel careers, has lived for 35 years in a former government factory building on New York’s Lower East Side. It has no elevator and for her first five years there, it had no heat. But it has plentiful space and light, she has renter’s status after all these years and she lives close to many of her musical cohorts.

Though not as well known to the record-buying public as other jazz artists, she has been a commanding force on New York’s music scene in settings ranging from duos and trios to big bands and full orchestras. Her acute postbop band, Quintessence, which released its self-titled debut in 1987, has featured such talents as Steve Coleman, considered by some to be the most influential jazz artist of his generation (his M Base movement, which merged funk and bebop, strongly influenced Rosewoman); Greg Osby, another visionary who promotes young artists via his Inner Circle label; and Puerto Rican-born MacArthur Fellowship winner Miguel Zenon. And that’s just the saxophonists.

“Michele is a perfectionist,” Osby said via e-mail, “but within that seemingly oppressive characteristic lies an individual who crafts works that offer the interpreter unlimited freedom of expression within her almost magical musical frameworks. In essence, she gets her desired results by choosing her colors carefully, knowing full well what the picture in the frame should look like by hiring the best sub-contracted painters (musicians). Her achievements are absolutely not accidents.”

Rosewoman took her time putting together the pieces for her New Yor-Uba band, choosing jazz players who had the flexibility to play across the ethnic divide and Cuban players who were comfortable with improvising. Thanks to John Coltrane’s Indian experiments, free jazz great Don Cherry’s embrace of Balinese, West African and Indian music and other high profile cross-cultural projects, musical tastemakers were primed for New Yor-Uba, which made its debut in 1983 with a gala concert at Joseph Papp’s Public Theater. Its 14 members included drummer and vocalist Orlando “Puntilla” Rios, with whom Rosewoman developed a deep and mutually beneficial association.

Rios, who died in 2008, was a critical source of information on musical as well as spiritual practices in his homeland of Cuba, and provided songs in the Arara dialect from Dahomey (the pre-Colonial African kingdom that is now southern Benin). New Yor-Uba, whose jazz notables includes alto saxophonist and flutist Oliver Lake, gave Rios’s artistic vision wide exposure. The 10-piece ensemble captured on “30 Years” includes a pair of Cuban aces in drummer-singers Pedrito Martinez and Roman Diaz.

Ask Rosewoman why the album took so long and she’s more likely to shrug in annoyance than sigh in relief. “This is very challenging, demanding music,” she said.

“It requires a lot of rehearsal. There weren’t any record labels willing to afford that opportunity.”

Indeed, 16 years after the Buena Vista Social Club became a global sensation, making famous a cast of obscure Cuban masters in their 70s and 80s, Rosewoman needed a Kickstarter campaign to produce “30 Years.” She released it on her Advance Dance Disques label.

Even if it doesn’t sell as many copies as “Buena Vista Social Club,” the album stands as a true Latin jazz milestone — a special gift from an artist determined to bring two great cultures together. Feliz Navidad, indeed.

Sachs is a freelance writer.

Jazz Piano Christmas

Dec. 7, Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater, 75 minutes, $55. Visit www.kennedy-center.org or call
800-444-1324 or 202-467-4600.

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