Regenerating Possibilities: Dafnis Prieto Speaks

When Cuban drummer Dafnis Prieto moved to New York full time in 1999, he made an immediate splash. Seemingly overnight, Prieto began playing the likes of Henry Threadgill, Steve Coleman, and Brian Lynch, showcasing his ability to execute the knotty counterpoint of a full Cuban percussion section with a single drum kit. Since then, Prieto […]

Dafnis Prieto

Photo courtesy of the artist.

When Cuban drummer Dafnis Prieto moved to New York full time in 1999, he made an immediate splash. Seemingly overnight, Prieto began playing the likes of Henry Threadgill, Steve Coleman, and Brian Lynch, showcasing his ability to execute the knotty counterpoint of a full Cuban percussion section with a single drum kit. Since then, Prieto has released seven acclaimed albums as a leader, taught at NYU and the University of Miami, and received a MacArthur fellowship. Prieto has also developed a close relationship with The Jazz Gallery, performing on the “Jazz Cubano” series, writing commissioned works, and most recently, celebrating the release of his Grammy-winning big band album.

This evening, June 12, Prieto will guest on The Jazz Gallery’s online “Words and Music” series. Before joining the conversation, check out the following interview with Prieto where he remembers his earliest days in New York and his musical growth at the Gallery.

The Jazz Gallery: When you first moved to New York full-time, how did you go about meeting other people to play with? You started playing with Henry Threadgill and Brian Lynch seemingly overnight.

Dafnis Prieto: I got to New York in 1999. I already knew a few musicians there, like Brian and Henry and Steve Coleman. I had met them all over the previous five years or so on different occasions. I met Brian at Stanford University during a previous trip to the states for a residency. I met Steve when he came to Cuba in 1996. And I met Henry the previous time I had come through New York on a tour—Henry came to see the band. It was a band that I was part of in Cuba called Columna B and the members were Yosvany Terry, Roberto Carcassés on piano, and Descemer Bueno on bass. So in any case, when I arrived, because I already knew these musicians, I just called them up. Henry had expressed interest in working with me previously, as well as Steve, so I was looking forward to that.

I started playing around with other musicians, too. I think something that was really helpful was that I liked going from one genre to another, even in a matter of hours. Like I could have a more avant-garde gig, or a more straight ahead-jazz gig, and then four hours later had a gig that was completely Latin. I learned how to swim in different waters, and that helped balance my exposure, as well just make a living.

At the same time, in the early 2000s, there were a lot of other musicians coming to New York for the first time. I mean, there are always musicians coming to New York, but at that time, but I feel there was a particularly big wave at that time. One of those musicians was Yosvany Terry, who happened to be a good friend of mine. We had played together in Cuba a lot, and we kept doing that in New York. Yosvany started doing the “Jazz Cubano” series at The Jazz Gallery in 2000 and I played with him there. That was how I first got introduced to The Jazz Gallery and Dale Fitzgerald and Rio.

After that, I started presenting my own projects at the Gallery, too. One of the projects had Luis Perdomo on piano, Hans Glawischnig on bass, Ravi Coltrane on tenor saxophone, and Henry Threadgill on alto.

TJG: I want to hear that recording!

DP: Yeah! That was a really fun performance. And the relationship with The Jazz Gallery just grew from there. I basically debuted every project I came up with there. It really felt like a laboratory for the musicians, allowing us to experiment and bring things to life for people to experience in the audience. We were really blessed to have a place like The Jazz Gallery that was so open to different kinds of music. I think a lot about the quality with which the Gallery treated musicians. It really felt like a pleasant community, and I think that’s reflected in the quality of the music presented.

TJG: So the Gallery was clearly an important spot for you from the beginning, but you also mentioned that you would play a huge range of gigs. Were there other venues that you played a lot, or met future collaborators?

DP: One of the other big places for me was the old Zinc Bar on Houston Street. I used to play there almost every week, and sometimes two or three times a week! The music presented there was at a very high level. I met so many musicians who would come and hang out because it was one of the places that would stay open until 2 or 3 A.M. People would finish their gigs at 11 or 12 and then come over to hang at Zinc Bar.

TJG: Smalls wasn’t too far from there and stayed open late. Did you hang there as well?

DP: I never did that much at Smalls. I probably played there a couple of times. I mean, I played lots of different places. But in terms of places I would go to almost every week, either to play or check other people out, it was Zinc Bar and The Jazz Gallery.

TJG: I’d like to move on to your work as a composer. Had you written a lot of music before coming to New York?

DP: I had written some tunes in Cuba, and I played a few of them with Columna B. But I wasn’t fully into writing music. I was more into playing drums. When I got to New York, the city really invited me, or challenged me, or inspired me because of the amount of different music happening. I started feeling a sense that I needed to create my own music. I needed to express myself not just in my own drumming, but in composition. I don’t think I would have developed the music that I make now without the New York experience. It helped me believe that I could write music of my own, have great musicians play it, and have it be personal and different.

I was developing that voice through the drums, but I wanted to go farther than that. When I visualize what I wanted to do, I see it as creating my own water to swim in. It became a necessity for me, and it grew more important. New York was the perfect scenario for this growth because I had met all of these great musicians who were willing to play my music.

TJG: When you started writing, were there particular musicians whom you saw as models? Like, Steve and Henry are very powerful conceptualists in terms of how they devise music for their ensembles. Were they models?

DP: Of course! That was part of the inspiration when I came to New York. It was really inspiring to be around and work with these unbelievable musicians who have such a distinctive vocabulary and concept behind the music. I wanted to do that too.

When I say something inspired me, I’m not saying that I wanted to imitate it. They all do distinctive kinds of music, and their perspectives inspired me, but when I work music out within myself, it comes out in a different way.

And beyond Steve and Henry, I got to check out many other wonderful composers too. I got to play with Andrew Hill, who was one of a kind. That was very special. And then I was playing with Eddie Palmieri and Michel Camilo. They’re all so distinctive from each other, but I was able to enjoy and understand and appreciate where they were coming from, musically-speaking.

TJG: In some ways, it seems like the inspiration is how to distill different sounds into a personal voice, rather than superficially imitating what was around you.

DP: Yeah. I never really wanted to do things like someone else. Listening to their music for long periods of time, I appreciate it and it inspires me, but it doesn’t mean I want to sound like them. Music, for me, isn’t one formula. There are different kinds of musicians, there are different kinds of human beings. Some people need to be told what to do. Others go out and find it and get it. I always felt much more related to the latter. In my life, I never had people give me stuff for nothing. So I always see myself with that responsibility to find my own way.

TJG: How much do you remember about how the first Jazz Gallery commission came about?

DP: I remember two or three different commissions through The Jazz Gallery. I remember preparing a statement about what I wanted to pursue on that specific project. And then with The Jazz Gallery, we submitted that proposal to funders. I think one of the first ones was for my project the Absolute Quintet. That was a project that involved string players, and we eventually did an album. I really like to address specific musical ideas in each project. I want to get as much as I can from the sound and the individual musicians. We’re talking about stuff twenty years ago, so I can’t remember all the specifics!

I forget if this was a commission or not, but I remember being part of a collaborative project where there were a series of duos. One day, I played music with Vijay Iyer, and then the next day I played with James Hurt. I also played duo with Kwaku Obeng, the percussionist from Ghana, I believe. That project was all about being open and conscious of who was in front of you. There were so many different settings for making music, so that was very exciting.

TJG: I was able to find a review of one of the 2002 commission concerts of yours that featured Avishai Cohen, Peter Apfelbaum, Jason Lindner, and Hans Glawischnig in the band, plus Claudia Acuña guesting on a couple of numbers. It mentioned a few tune titles and I was struck by how those tunes have showed up on different albums of yours recorded at different times. Can you talk about the process of reimagining compositions of yours over time?

DP: There are pieces that have that quality, that regenerate in a way. Others are more specific in how they should sound. That evolution has to do with your imagination and really taking advantage of the full possibilities that you have. You might be in a situation where you’re asked to bring something in to a band, and it might be a different configuration than what you originally had, and so you think about which one is more appropriate for this setting. It’s a great exercise for a musician.

I’ve been doing that for a long time, and I really did that with my big band record. I took some older songs of mine and rearranged them. It became about exploring different sounds and different expressions from the same source. I’ve always been open to that. As much as I like to be a composer, in terms of conceiving something for a specific situation, I also have to give value to the performer who brings the music alive. If I write something for piano and I don’t have a good pianist to play it, I might bring that part to the saxophone. It’s just a great adventure.

Opening up to have the same material played by different configurations is a learning process. I’ve always been drawn to that—the experience of learning from my peers, learning from the feedback that I get when we play. It’s not only the verbal feedback, whether criticism or not, but the feedback from the performer interpretation. That will trigger something new and different in me. It’s kind of a chain reaction.

TJG: I’m interested in artists who have a more evolutionary approach to their music versus those who may be more conceptual. I think of John Coltrane as an evolutionary artist—so many of his albums are for quartet, and his music evolves gradually from record to record. And I think of Miles Davis as a more conceptual artist who can have really rapid departures in sound and instrumentation from album to album.

DP: I’m interested in the evolutionary nature of music, but I also like doing really different things as well. Like, there are some songs that are written specifically for the Absolute Quintet that I would never imagine doing in a different situation. I’m not someone who sees this idea in black and white. I see so many choices when it comes to music. Sometimes, there are musical things that I don’t want to do, but I have to do because of logistics, or I have to because it will pay off in the long run. I like both approaches. Both of them are valuable. I have to deal with the situations in my life.

TJG: I think Henry and Steve have that mixed approach as well. They can have really different instrumentations from album to album, but have also been honing their respective compositional systems for long periods of time.

DP: Yeah. For example, I have a different perspective about that. I’m a big fan of Salvador Dalí. He said this thing in an interview, and it’s a really surreal statement, but also so real. They asked him, “What makes you Salvador Dalí?” And he said, “I like to repeat myself.” At first, that sounds like the opposite of creativity. I think what he means is that if you’re thinking that you’re doing something new, you’re just adding something to what you already are. It’s just a continuation. It deals with your perception of that moment versus the full perception of your body of work.

I’ll say this: it’s very hard to get rid of yourself. I have to love myself in order to express something about who I am. In a way, I’m thinking in the long run. Each record works as a continuation, or adds a very specific sound. But to me, it all adds to a body of work. And the end, you can look back and say, “I did a lot of different projects with different sounds and different musicians. I got to share this with lots of different people, and this is who I am.”

You mentioned earlier Miles Davis and John Coltrane, and how Coltrane really evolved gradually from Blue Train to the later periods. But I can see the same thing in Miles Davis! From Kind of Blue to the Tutu record, that’s an evolution right there from one to another. It’s a different kind of evolution, but he’s just a different human being. Different human beings have different strategies, different formulas. And they react differently to reality, too. All of this is so personal. It’s like life itself. It’s unique and personal, but also general at the same time. It’s the concept that there are two sides to the story.