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Immediately following his defection, Averhoff, who lives with Ana Maria in Miami, began appearing with South Florida's finest Cuban jazz players. His latest quintet combines the best of the best, a group of progressive, versatile players who grew up influenced by Irakere's innovations. "With this group, I wanted to look at a more Cuban vision of Latin jazz, in particular using rhythms that are very characteristic of Cuban music," Averhoff said. "I also try to play jazz solos with phrasing that draws on the language of popular Cuban music. It's a very personal vision."
His love affair with Afro-Cuban jazz began in the mid-'60s when, as a student in Havana, he played with people like famed percussionist Jose Luis Quintana, better known as "Changuito." By the early '70s, he was performing as a soloist with state-sponsored organizations like the Cuban National Symphony Orchestra. During his stint with the Orquesta Cubana de Musica Moderna, he joined an offshoot of the orchestra led by pianist-composer Chucho Valdes, trumpet virtuoso Arturo Sandoval and saxophone prodigy Paquito D'Rivera with the intention of fusing Afro-Cuban rhythms with the complex chords and solos of American jazz. Their love for the music prompted them to risk official censure; it was an especially repressive time in Cuba when anything even vaguely American was forbidden.
"When we first started Irakere in the early '70s, we used to play jazz disguised with conga drums, batas, and the elements of Afro-Cuban percussion," Averhoff recalled. "But from the very beginning the musicians who congregated in that group were jazz players, at a time when jazz was considered imperialist by the government. We couldn't call what we were doing jazz because it was illegal."
Cuban officials ignored the band at first. But audiences caught on immediately. Its initial recordings fused West African bata rhythms with rock-influenced drums and guitars and big-band horn charts, and the first single, "Bacalao Con Pan," was a hit. Valdes' complicated arrangements called for radical changes of rhythm, a playful approach to serious music. Dancers and intellectuals alike took notice, and the government was forced to accept Irakere's full-throttle fusion at face value.
"Irakere was a very important detonator in the development of Cuban jazz and contemporary popular groups," Averhoff claimed.
Although the group was popular with Cuban audiences, Irakere remained virtually unknown outside Cuba until 1977, when a detente-inspired "jazz cruise" docked in Havana. On board were some of North America's most important jazz luminaries, including Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Getz, and Earl "Fatha" Hines. Irakere was chosen to represent Cuba's cutting edge, and the American masters of jazz were stunned by what they heard. Jam sessions featuring both Cuban and American musicians followed, and Gillespie returned to the U.S. raving about Irakere.
The following year Irakere was invited to perform at the Newport Jazz Festival in New York City. It was 1978, a period of increased cultural exchange between the Castro and Carter administrations, and despite an ongoing embargo, special visas were granted. Irakere was the first Castro-era group to tour outside Cuba. After the Newport festival appearance, the Columbia recording of the performance (available on CD as Best of Irakere) earned the band a Grammy Award in 1979 for Best Latin Recording.
Averhoff hopes to record with his new group, and he's been discussing the possibility of serving as music director for the string of restaurant-nightclubs George Hamilton plans to open in South Florida. (The first, Hamiltons Miami, is due to open next month.)
Like everyone else in O'Hara's tonight, Hamilton watches and listens as Averhoff continues his solo, the warm tone of his saxophone caressing the song's subtle chord changes. Then he veers into turbulence, expressed in sudden shrieks. It's a beautiful dance along the tightrope, and when Averhoff's impassioned improvisation trails off to make room for the pianist's solo, the crowd roars its approval.
Without hesitation Averhoff gestures with his beloved horn, the one he's had since he was a teenager in Cuba, toward a happy Ana Maria. He beams at her, and for a moment he looks like a little boy who can't conceal his crush on a classmate. It's a love story he was narrating with that horn, one crammed full of hardships and, finally, triumph.
As the spotlight shifts to the piano, Averhoff is ecstatic. Unable to contain himself he walks off stage, circles the club, and shows up at his wife's side, where he gives her a kiss.
The Carlos Averhoff Quintet will perform at O'Hara's Pub and Jazz Cafe, 722 E. Las Olas Blvd. in Fort Lauderdale on Monday, June 29, at 9 pm. Call 954-524-2801 for details.