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Dafnis Prieto plays more than meets the ear

Cuban drummer uses jazz as a jumping-off point

“We use not only traditional jazz sounds, but I’m looking for keyboard sounds, electric sounds, and things like that,’’ says drummer Dafnis Prieto of his Si o Si quartet.SCOTT MACKISSEN

NEW YORK - In a prominent spot on the shelf in the peaceful living room of drummer Dafnis Prieto’s apartment in Washington Heights sits a row of books on one of Prieto’s favorite subjects: optical illusions. Close by is a stack of volumes on an artist famous for his use of illusion, Salvador Dalí.

A drummer and bandleader who has become one of the most prolific and well-regarded in his craft since emigrating from Cuba to New York in 1999, Prieto, 37, pays proper respect to his predecessors on the skins, from Art Blakey to Jack DeJohnette. But when the topic of influences comes up, Prieto is just as likely to point to the Spanish surrealist painter.


“Dalí is very organic, very natural, and has that scientific knowledge as well,’’ says Prieto. “He was very science-oriented but without forgetting natural instincts and beliefs. He declared himself a mystic. It’s kind of contradictory, but that made him who he was, and he’s a great influence on me.’’

That sense of creative contradiction inhabits the work of Prieto, who brings his Si o Si quartet to Scullers on Wednesday. Celebrated by fellow musicians for his extraordinary technical range, he favors a restrained playing style over pyrotechnics. A clinician and NYU professor, he is writing a book on drums with a chapter on spirituality.

Most of all, Prieto is a Cuban jazz player who opposes the idea of “Latin jazz’’ as a genre that he must either hew to or work outside. Instead, Prieto takes fragments from Afro-Cuban music but also folk, classical, and other forms, and employs them in sophisticated, almost deconstructive ways to make music that feels progressive, even avant-garde, but equally fluid and organic.

“Dafnis is one of those people who’s come along and figured out a new way to do things,’’ says Si o Si saxophonist Peter Apfelbaum, who has played with Prieto for a decade. He says Prieto is uncannily adept at finding ways to break, superimpose, or shift rhythms that open up whole new ways of hearing a piece.


“It’s a heightened sense of spatial dimensions,’’ Apfelbaum says, to illustrate. “Like when you’re in the street and you recognize exactly how much space is between you and a building, and what’s possible to do within that space.’’

On Si o Si’s 2009 album, “Live at Jazz Standard NYC,’’ for example, the track “Claveteo’’ is grounded in that core component of Afro-Cuban music, the clave rhythm pattern. Here Prieto explores the ambiguities of perception, or how people receive the same inputs yet find different meanings.

“On that tune we all play in the rhythm of the clave, but seen in different perspectives because the clave starts on different beats,’’ Prieto says. “So it’s different claves - or the same clave seen in different ways. That tune was specifically based on the subject of illusion or perception, with a clave subject.’’

It was no illusion or trick of the mind, however, when Prieto got a call, one morning last fall, that artists and scholars dream about yet none dare expect. It informed him that he was awarded a 2011 MacArthur Fellowship, also known as the $500,000 “genius grant’’ with no strings attached, paid out over five years.

The foundation has rewarded jazz musicians before, but Prieto was its first drummer since the late Max Roach in 1988.


That exemplifies a problem that Prieto decries - the fact that drummers often have trouble establishing themselves as bandleaders. For his own part, although he owns a stellar resumé as sideman to Eddie Palmieri, Henry Threadgill, Steve Coleman and others, he says he’s found it challenging to get traction for his own ventures, which include Si o Si, a quintet, and a sextet, despite nothing but rave reviews.

“I’d been kind of struggling to get my projects moving,’’ he says. “The MacArthur will really help me get through a lot of barriers.’’

This year, Prieto, who releases his work on his own label, plans to complete and publish his book. He is mixing an album with a new group, the Proverb Trio, with Jason Lindner on keyboards and soul vocalist Kokayi, playing pure improvisations, and new music for his other groups is in the pipeline.

As for Si o Si, it includes Apfelbaum, pianist Manuel Valera, and bassist Charles Flores (Johannes Weidenmüller sits in Wednesday). The name means “Yes or Yes,’’ which conveys a whole attitude.

“It’s a very positive title,’’ Prieto says. “We have great chemistry. We use not only traditional jazz sounds, but I’m looking for keyboard sounds, electric sounds, and things like that.’’

It’s a far cry from Cuba, where Prieto excelled as a young drummer in his hometown Santa Clara and then at the prestigious National School of Music. He toured in Europe while in his teens, with pianist Carlos Maza and the group Columna B. Along the way, he cemented his decision to leave Cuba, and met some of the American artists who would help him get his bearings here.


“I left Cuba because I felt suffocated professionally,’’ Prieto says. “I didn’t have many options to do what I wanted to do musically.’’ Though adept in the classical and Afro-Cuban traditions, he wanted to look beyond category in a way that Cuba did not allow: “It had to be one thing or the other.’’

Apfelbaum says Prieto’s mind inherently roams outside formats and genres. “He wakes up in the morning and has ideas,’’ Apfelbaum says. “It makes him special, and it’s a quality that great musicians have had that goes beyond stylistic conventions.’’

Prieto puts it this way: “I’m trying to really express the way I live now and who I am, and so are the rest of the musicians,’’ he says. “It’s not a museum music, that’s for sure. We are all living now.’’

Siddhartha Mitter can be reached at siddharthamitter@gmail .com.