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The Cuban saxophonist with the trim, salt-and-pepper beard announces from the stage at O'Hara's on a recent Monday night that he is going to serenade his young wife.
"I have played many arrangements of this song, but I'm going to play it for my wife, Ana Maria, tonight because I know she likes it," says Carlos Averhoff, for nearly 30 years one of Cuba's most accomplished jazz musicians.
Ana Maria, whom he met while touring in Colombia three years ago, sits at a table beside the stage, surrounded by friends. Averhoff turns to acknowledge her, and his face lights up. At the foot of the stage, conga drum legend Luis Miranda nods in appreciation while, a few tables over, George Hamilton, the actor-restaurateur, listens attentively. A substantial crowd has turned up to hear the Grammy-winning saxophonist, best known for his nearly 20-year tenure with legendary Cuban jazz ensemble Irakere.
The crowd has come to hear Averhoff's celebrated mix of hardcore Afro-Cuban rhythms and dizzying jazz sophistication, something that would have been difficult to check out in South Florida just one year ago. Suddenly, amid the din of clinking glasses and murmuring voices, Averhoff lifts his tenor sax to his lips and blows the opening notes of the jazz ballad "Invitation." A full-throated flurry of sounds that can't even be called notes rains on the crowd from the stage, which is brimming with world-class musicians armed with congas and batas, drums, keys, and an electric standup bass. When the quartet eases in behind Averhoff, the room is drenched with a wave of rich chords and ambient percussive effects.
Then Averhoff launches into a masterful solo. The band begins to swing, the percussion providing a percolating backdrop that hints at Brazilian bossa nova and Cuban rumba. The bassist lies back in the groove, grounding everyone, while the pianist spices his Afro-Caribbean vamps with intriguing jazz chords.
The Carlos Averhoff Quintet is only three months old, but already the band sounds rich and textured. Its members are a who's who of Latin jazz masters: pianist Abel Pabon, bassist Ramses Colon, percussionist Alberto Palenzuela and drummer Carlos Salvador. Here in O'Hara's they offer the perfect blend of beauty and bombast, technical virtuosity and rhythmic drive.
It was on another stage altogether that Carlos Averhoff made local headlines last July. During a jam session in Miami Beach's Yuca nightclub with Cuban trombonist Juan Pablo Torres' group, Averhoff defected, declaring he would not return to Cuba after completing his brief American tour with Cuban singer Isaac Delgado. The decision came after a tortuous bout of soul-searching during which he agonized over leaving in Cuba his grown son and daughter from a previous marriage.
"I was motivated to stay here by personal, political, and artistic reasons," Averhoff said. "In Cuba there's no future. There are many talented musicians, but they have no future, no possibilities. I felt that I had hit the ceiling, and I needed to open myself up to the world."
One of his "personal" reasons for staying was Ana Maria. During a tour of Colombia in 1995, he met his future wife and arranged to stay in Colombia for the next year and a half, teaching music and performing. But a position at a local university fell through, and Averhoff, who missed his mother and children, returned to Cuba. He spent 1996 in a depressed state, inventorying the modest comforts he'd amassed during three decades as a "successful" Cuban musician (an Italian espresso machine, a Russian car, a small but cherished record collection), and looking for opportunities to play and travel.
Opportunities were scarce. Cuban musicians are forced to forgo artistic statements for the sake of producing music the Cuban government finds acceptable. Without its approval a musician cannot qualify for an exit visa and has few opportunities to earn a living. The state-sponsored record labels, the hotels, the clubs aimed at tourists -- all are government-controlled entities that demand musicians compose and/or perform commercially viable music, such as salsa. Averhoff felt stifled.
"There are many individual talents there right now that are forced to do a type of popular music that would permit them to tour outside the country, to try to make some dollars," he said. "A labor of love that an artist might create in a more benevolent environment is simply not realized. This makes it very difficult to nourish new artistic currents that may have been mixed with Coca-Cola and Marlboro."
Ironically, salsa music provided Averhoff with a rare opportunity in 1997, when he was invited to tour Puerto Rico, Washington, D.C., and New York City with singer Isaac Delgado's salsa group. Seeing a chance to jump ship during the American leg of the tour, Averhoff worried over the move for weeks before deciding to seek political asylum in the United States.
"In this country, this is where I could be reunited with my wife," he explained. "She is Colombian, but Colombia would not grant me citizenship because she and I were not married yet. And I couldn't take her to Cuba because that would be like burying her alive there. So we decided that, here in America, we could find a new life."