Cuban-born drummer Dafnis Prieto never makes two albums alike. So yeah, it’s a given that album #5 wasn’t going to be a retread of #’s 1,2,3 or 4, but who could have predicted this?
Prieto unveiled a new band, the Dafnis Prieto Proverb Trio, but it’s unlike any other trio ever devised: joining Prieto and his drums are Jason Lindner on electronic keyboards and Kokayi handling vocals. Brooklyn native Lindner has long ago made his reputation as a arranger, composer and leader of one of prominent big bands in NYC. Hailing from Washington, D.C., Kokayi brings a hip-hop background and a stint in Steve Coleman’s band to the group. Prieto himself is among an extremely talented group of Cuban émigrés who have livened up New York’s jazz scene for the last decade and a half, joining David Virelles, Manuel Valera and Aruán Ortiz in this crazy talented bunch.
When these three put their abilities together, though, they didn’t do so with a whole lot of contemplation: “Everything was improvised; we did the entire album in six hours,” offered Prieto.
Crack musicians getting together to knock out a record with songs made up on the spot without notated music isn’t necessarily novel or even exceptional, if you’re talking about free jazz or some other experimental style of music. But the Proverb Trio doesn’t make a bunch of dissonant noise that goes in many directions at once; the music might be free but it’s melodic, it grooves and it’s got defined shapes.
And that includes the vocals. Kokayi leans heavily on his freestyling skills, devising sensible lyrics on the fly, and blurring the lines between scatting and rapping. It’s sometimes easy to think of him of assuming a saxophonist’s role in this band. Carrying on like a streetwise Al Jarreau and Bobby McFerrin rolled into one, Kokayi gets “The Magic Danzonete” going with a bass line he devises with his voice, and Lindner picks it up and puts it on a Moog, and Prieto fills out rhythm sensationally. Amidst that syncopated beat and scatting between the lines Kokayi seemingly answers Beyoncé with “You want a ring? I say baby I’m not really giving you a thing.” He’s exceptional again on “In War,” spinning off an anti war diatribe is poignant because he brings it down to personal level. But he gets the support he needs, too: Lindner plays Mozart like proses soon on synth as Prieto fires off fragments of marching drums, setting up the mood perfectly for the singer.
Kokayi is very capable as a “straight” singer, demonstrating a glass-smooth, strong voice on “Into The Light Love,” but also briefly going off into a freestyle excursion. Here though, he holds back enough to reveal the Afro-Cuban rhythmic design that’s impossibly complex and animated, amidst Lindner chunks of synthesizers. But in spite of Prieto’s heritage, he does nothing overtly Cuban and yet nearly everything is Cuban influenced. “Mother Nature” might be the most overt nod to his native country, a melody that barely exists over his festive drums until Lindner asserts himself toward the end. For “You Got It,” Prieto employs a second line beat in a way that underscores the strong link rhythmically between New Orleans and Havana. Meanwhile, Kokayi goads Lindner to go beyond a mere comping role, succeeding when the keyboardist puts down a funky, raw electric piano solo.
A few times, as on “Extasis” and “Mystery Man,” the trio is reduced to a Lindner/Prieto, but without Kokayi in the mix they explore mood, shadings and warm washes of sounds. The change of pace adds to the diversity and unpredictability of these recordings.
It was a record destined to be unpredictable, given the circumstances and the players. That it’s also so good is an outcome that can only come from three virtuosic, sympathetic musicians so well in tune with each other. Dafnis Prieto Proverb Trio changes perceptions about what a totally improvisational album can sound like.
Dafnis Prieto Proverb Trio was released July 9, by Prieto’s Dafnison Music imprint. Visit Dafnis Prieto’s website for more info.
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