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Edmar Castañeda brings improvisatory pluck to folkloric tradition

Two for the Show Media

Edmar Castañeda.

Edmar Castañeda and Miguel Zenón have both opened up new territory in the ever-expanding nexus of jazz and Latin American music, but their collaboration required some careful rhythmic calibration.

Where Castañeda has single-handedly transformed the Colombian harp into a serious vehicle for jazz, alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón has dedicated himself to celebrating the popular and folkloric music of Puerto Rico with his rhythmically supple quartet. They make their debut as a duo Friday night at the Regattabar, focusing on material from Castañeda’s new self-produced CD, “Double Portion.’’

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“Edmar really came from the folkloric side, and he added the jazz on top,’’ says Zenón, 35. “I became a jazz player first, even though I was raised around this Puerto Rican folklore, then I went back, retouched it, and found my way to all those sounds. We feel a lot of the subdivisions the same way, so the connection is more rhythmic, and everything else is on top of that.’’

Castañeda introduced his Double Portion project last week in New York at the Blue Note with Zenón and Cuban pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba (the album also features Brazilian mandolin star Hamilton de Holanda). Featuring artists who perform mostly as leaders of their own bands, it’s the kind of ensemble he won’t have many opportunities to reassemble. But for Castañeda, 33, subtracting musicians actually increases musical possibilities.

“You can open everything up more,’’ Castañeda says. “You can take the form and go in different directions. We both have a lot of passion for Latin American culture and I’m looking forward to see what we can create.’’

Double Portion refers both to his faith (“When you follow God and put everything in his hands, he always gives you a double portion,’’ Castañeda says) and the fact that the project features arrangements for both the Colombian harp and the concert harp, a relatively recent addition to his arsenal.

With its limited range, the Colombian harp presents unique challenges for a harmonically adventurous improviser. The concert harp possesses its own particular quirks, though that doesn’t stop Castañeda from playing bass with his left hand, laying down a supple 6/8 Colombian joropo groove.

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“On the concert harp you use the pedals to change keys, and it’s almost like a piano,’’ Castañeda says. “With the Colombian harp you have to play in one key. And the tension on the strings is much stronger on the concert harp. Switching between them is like running with really soft shoes and then putting on hard ones and keep running.’’

Born and raised in Bogota, Castañeda became enamored with the Colombian harp while listening to his father, a respected harpist and educator, play traditional joropo dance music. He started delving into jazz in high school after his family relocated to the New York area in 1994.

While studying trumpet at Long Island’s Five Towns College, he took music theory and improvisation courses by day and applied his newfound knowledge to the harp at a nightly solo restaurant gig.

Before long he had honed a persuasively syncopated approach drawing on Cuban and Brazilian rhythms, traditional Colombian forms, and jazz harmonies and improvisation. But longing to play with other musicians, he gained enough confidence to talk his way on stage at Latin music jam sessions, descargas, blithely ignoring the wide-eyed disbelief he faced for carrying an unproven ax.

Cuban reed master Paquito D’Rivera happened to hear him one night, and invited him to sit in at a concert at the Beacon Theater, a crucial breakthrough that established his standing as part of a wave of brilliant Latin American musicians reshaping jazz.

In recent years he has focused on his expansive quartet with drummer-percussionist David Silliman, Colombian vocalist Andrea Tierra, and either trombonist Marshall Gilkes or saxophonist Shlomi Cohen. But he has eagerly sought out opportunities to work with musicians such as Zenón who are similarly engaged with Latin American roots music.

“When I heard him play all the plena and jibaro mixed with jazz, I thought, this is amazing,’’ Castañeda says. “That’s what brought us together, this real passion for traditional folk music. We were recording a tune of mine based on traditional Colombian llanera music, and he had a llanera rhythm in Puerto Rico, too, but with a different accent. It brings something special and new when we play together.’’

Over the past decade, Castañeda has overcome even the most skeptical players through collaborations with an array of heavyweights such as Wynton Marsalis, John Scofield, John Patitucci, and Taylor Eigsti. He’s toured as a special guest with the Django Reinhardt Festival All-Stars, and is working on a symphony project, composing a piece for harp and orchestra. No matter what context he plays in, Castañeda creates an embracing vibe found too rarely in jazz.

“He keeps it very open and likes to take chances,’’ Zenón says. “The instrument is limited in many ways, but the amazing stuff he can do makes you forget that. The thing about Edmar is that he makes it feel like a jazz gig, but also something very folkloric, with that spontaneous feeling like you’re playing with your friends on the street.’’

Andrew Gilbert can be reached at jazzscribe@aol.com.

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