Tooting His Own Horn

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."

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.

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