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Habana Sax

In early 2000, Delaware-based music activist and entrepreneur Stephen Bailey traveled to Havana, Cuba, looking for something he knew existed there, but was unsure of exactly what it would be. “I wanted to find contemporary Cuban music,” he recalls in a recent interview. “I’d been watching the whole Buena Vista thing for a while, and that’s really time-capsule stuff, based on a scene that disappeared 40 years ago. I thought there must be something that’s more representative of the past 40 years of Cuban music.”

After several very late nights at Havana nightclubs watching a procession of acts that were either mediocre or derivative, or both, he found himself with some time to burn and decided, against his better judgment, to check out a strange little group calling itself Habana Sax. “These guys were described to me as an ensemble with four saxophones and a percussionist,” Bailey remembers. “I thought, ‘Yeah, right.’ I was very disinterested.”

Habana Sax were rehearsing in an empty room in an empty house in Havana. “They sat me down in a wooden chair in the middle of the room, gathered around me and started to blow,” Bailey says. “After about 30 seconds I made them stop. I had nearly fallen off of my chair, and I was completely beside myself. This was something completely unique. I realized that these guys were what I was looking for. I knew I had to bring them to the States.”

Bailey brought the group to the United States for a three-date tour in early 2001, and he’s brought them back for an extended tour of the United States and Canada, which will include appearances at several major Canadian jazz festivals. Habana Sax will be performing in our area at the Egg on Saturday (April 20).

Habana Sax came together in the late ’80s as a classical saxophone quartet at Havana’s prestigious Superior Institute of Art and Culture. That was when cofounder Jorge Luis Almeida, a faculty member there, picked three of his star pupils to form the ensemble (all band members are graduates and are now on the faculty of the institute). A percussionist was added several years later to facilitate the addition of traditional Cuban music to the repertoire. A 1997 invitation to a European jazz festival (presumably to capture a little Buena Vista-like authentic Cuban old-school music), and the addition of über-drummer Francois Zayas prompted the band to turn entirely to modern jazz.

“We listen to and admire a lot of Latin jazz, of course,” says Almeida, “People like Arturo Sandoval, Paquito D’Rivera and Eddie Palmieri. For improvisation, we’re inspired by Dizzy and Miles, and more recent guys like Michael Brecker and Josh Redmond.”

The list of jazz influences hardly describes what the band is about. Live, the musical references and cultural influences careen across the stage with mind-boggling speed. Free jazz begets ’60s French jazz, which begets hard Latin bop, which begets a cappella Santeria chanting, which begets salsa, which begets ensemble hand-clapping, which begets Stravinsky-like symphonic codas, which begets hiphop, which begets time-standing-still percussion breaks. All of the band members are classically trained virtuosos, and all of them are steeped in not only traditional rural and urban Cuban music, but also in international popular music styles, and of course, jazz in all of its manifestations.

“Right now, the group is absolutely in a pure, pristine state,” observes Bailey. “There is no machine behind them, no heavyweight management, no label. It’s just five guys and their incredible music.” And Bailey’s right: This isn’t a group that has studied target demographics, or groomed an image, or tried to sound like the latest new thing on the charts, or dumbed-down their most exploratory musical leanings to patronize a mass audience. Instead, they are five immensely talented individuals with a common and simple vision to make real music and to entertain audiences on the most basic level.

Habana Sax have one CD out, a fairly crude recording made several years ago in a low-tech Cuban government studio; they are slated, however, to record a properly made disc while in the States. And first-ever gigs in major markets (like New York and Toronto), as well as appearances at some major jazz festivals, are certain to attract legions of new fans, critical acclaim, and more than likely, industry notice and support. Bailey is confident that the little band that blew him away in the empty room in Havana two years ago will take off, and soon: “I think everything is gonna change for these guys drastically during this tour.”

Habana Sax perform at 8 PM at the Egg on Saturday (April 20). Tickets are $24 and are on sale at the Egg box office at the Empire State Plaza (473-1845) and at all Ticketmaster locations.

—Paul Rapp

Lee Stringer

The odds of securing a publishing deal as an unknown author are, frankly, pretty crappy—and that’s for the clean and sober writer sending out manuscripts from his den. The odds for the drug-addicted and homeless unknown author are, unsurprisingly, not even that good. The odds of a homeless and drug-addicted unknown author securing a publishing deal, finishing a book and receiving both popular and critical success and acclaim . . . well, we wouldn’t know how to begin to calculate those. They must be in the “hit by lightning twice and scarring in the shape of the winning lottery numbers” range. Yet, that is Lee Stringer’s story.

Stringer, who will speak at the Albany Public Library on Sunday (April 21), is the author of Grand Central Winter: Stories from the Streets, a chronicle of his 12 years living on the streets of New York City, and Like Shaking Hands With God: a Conversation on Writing, with Kurt Vonnegut, in which the two authors discuss the intersection of their respective lives and work. Stringer’s first book was picked as one of the top 10 recommended books of 1998 by both the New York Times and USA Today, and in its preface, Vonnegut likened him to Jack London, calling him a “self-educated storyteller of the first rank.” A follow-up memoir, Sleepaway School, which relates Stringer’s sometimes difficult childhood, is scheduled to come out next year.

Lee Stringer will speak in the large auditorium of the Albany Public Library (161 Washington Ave., Albany) at 2 PM on Sunday (April 21). The lecture is free. For more information, 427-4300.


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