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Ninety Miles goes the distance to connect with Cuban jazz

From left: Bandleaders Stefon Harris, Nicholas Payton, and David Sánchez united to form Ninety Miles.

From left: Bandleaders Stefon Harris, Nicholas Payton, and David Sánchez united to form Ninety Miles.

On his first-ever visit to Cuba, there for a headfirst dive into musical collaboration due to culminate in recordings for a new album only about a week later, vibraphonist Stefon Harris needed to sort out some details as soon as his flight from Miami landed in Havana.

Like finding an instrument to play.

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The trip was only possible after a year of thwarted travel plans. After Harris and musical compatriots David Sánchez and Christian Scott received last-minute word the adventure was really happening, trip planners decided it would be too complicated to get Harris’s instrument through customs. He made do with the assurance there’d be one waiting for him. There wasn’t.

“Our guide said he knew someone that played vibraphone, and we should go to her house,” Harris recalls. “She opened the door and was surprised to see us.”

She gladly lent him the instrument as well as mallets, since his own were too big for the smaller bars on this older model.

This spirit of quick, in-the-moment adaptation came to characterize the whole endeavor, which saw three US-based jazz artists work with a group of Cuban musicians whom they’d never met before. The ensemble, dubbed Ninety Miles (in reference to the distance between Miami and Havana), released the fruits of its collaboration in a 2011 record and then a live album released last year. Featuring Harris, saxophonist Sánchez, and trumpeter Nicholas Payton (in place of Scott), the ensemble plays Berklee Performance Center on Friday.

The idea of uniting the three bandleaders came from their shared record label, Concord. Concord Music Group executive John Burk, credited as a producer of the resulting albums, first scouted out the jazz scene in Havana and worked out the musical summit with local pianists Rember Duharte and Harold López-Nussa, who brought their own rhythm sections along.

“It was a complete adventure in all the sense of the word, because, to be honest, it could have gone completely wrong,” recalls Sánchez, on the phone from the Conservatory of Music of Puerto Rico where he was in residence.

They all contributed compositions for the group to work on through a busy week of rehearsals, capped by a few very productive days of recording and one public live performance. Unfamiliar with their work, Harris had to check out some live footage on YouTube to get a sense for the Cuban artists’ style before writing a tune for the sessions.

“I love that there was a lot of unknown, because that creates a certain type of energy that fuels the creative spirit,” Harris reflects, speaking from his home in New Jersey. “We didn’t say too much to one another while rehearsing because we didn’t want to ask the musicians from Cuba to play any other way than how they played naturally. So they brought what they brought to my music in a way that I couldn’t have predicted. I just was open to allowing the music to become whatever it was meant to be with that particular gathering of human beings.”

The resulting album could fit well enough under whatever hyphenated combination of the words jazz, Afro, Latin, Caribbean, and Cuban one might wish to stick together. But its conga-spiced rhythms are informed by a strident, hard-bop awareness, and the inviting horn tones and cantering melodic lines are smoothly crafted. The Grammy pedigree of the Americans (they all have multiple nominations, and Sánchez won one for a recording with Roy Hargrove’s band) is never too far from sight. (For his part, band newcomer Payton brings his own trophy to the group’s collective resume.)

Since it formed in the crucible of a sweaty rehearsal space with no air conditioning and a tight deadline to meet, Ninety Miles has adapted due to necessity. The Cuban contingent was unable to secure permission to join a United States tour, Sánchez says, due to “the politics involved and the protocols and all the nonsense that has nothing to do with art and music.” The current touring outfit is rounded out with musicians based in this country but with musical roots elsewhere, like bassist Ricardo Rodriguez (a Puerto Rican native who’s played with the touring orchestra of the Afro Latin Jazz Alliance) and Cuban-born percussionist Mauricio Herrera.

“To be honest, it turned out to be more interesting now because it’s not only about the Cuban flavors or the Afro-Caribbean flavors,” avers Sánchez, “because we have people that are really exposed to a bilingual kind of way of playing music. We can go in different directions. We have the Latin perspective, but it's much broader than that.”

He says the role of musical diplomat fits well. “I think art just opens doors to communication. It transcends ideologies, religious stuff, et cetera. That’s the powerful thing about music to me.”

Harris has the luxury of bringing his own vibraphone and marimba on tour, but he says the sound of the borrowed one heard on Ninety Miles’ album still reminds him of the spirit of those days in Cuba.

“It has a charm to it, a certain characteristic that sounds very authentic. It kind of reminds me of the energy you see in the city of Havana. It’s from a classic era.”

Jeremy Goodwin can be reached at jeremy@jeremydgoodwin.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremydgoodwin.
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