A leader at last

The Jerusalem Jazz Festival welcomes the return of Cuban drummer Ignacio Berroa, hot on the heels of his first album release.

ignacio berroa 88.298 (photo credit: Courtesy)
ignacio berroa 88.298
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Latin music and jazz have had a long marriage which continues to be fruitful, and one of the top exponents of this multi-cultural genre is drummer Ignacia Berroa. Arriving in Israel this week with his quintet to perform at the Jerusalem Jazz Festival, Berroa is riding high on the release of his album Codes - his first recording as a bandleader after a decades-long career accompanying some of the finest jazz musicians. Born in Cuba in 1953, Berroa displayed a musical aptitude at a young age. After studying the classical violin, he switched at age 11 to drums after hearing American music on the radio. He went on to study at the National School of Arts and Havana's National Conservatory before starting his professional career in 1970. By the middle of the decade, he had become one of the island's most in-demand drummers. Moving to New York City in 1980 enabled Berroa to step onto the international stage. The late legendary trumpet player Dizzy Gillespie quickly noticed his skill and took him under his wing. During this later part of his career, Gillespie maintained several ensembles including his quartet, the Dizzy Gillespie All-Star Big Band, and the Grammy Award-winning United Nations Orchestra. Berroa held the drum chair for all of these groups and the resulting exposure catapulted him into the upper-realms of the jazz world. Gillespie praised Berroa on several occasions, and went so far as to call him, "the only Latin drummer in the world, in the history of American music, that intimately knows both worlds: his native Afro-Cuban music as well as jazz." Such accolades are notable considering that Gillespie, whose professional career spanned the years 1935-1992, probably performed or jammed with every significant drummer in jazz. "Playing with Dizzy...was one of the greatest experiences of my life, like a dream come true," Berroa related by phone from his home base in Miami. "When Dizzy came to Cuba in 1977 I was able to see that concert, and I said [then] that I was able to die already because I saw him. Four years later I became his drummer...up until this day it was unbelievable." Berroa went on to maintain a busy international career and has consistently worked with top artists, including Milt Jackson, Jackie McLean, Ron Carter, Wynton Marsalis, Freddie Hubbard, Eddie Gomez, Charlie Haden, McCoy Tyner, Tito Puente, Jaco Pastorius, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Gilberto Gil and many more. He's also authored an instructional DVD, two books on Afro-Cuban applications to the drum-set, and gives musical workshops and clinics worldwide. Despite pressure from his musical compatriots over the years, it took Berroa until May of this year to release his debut album. "It took me a long time, but things happen for a reason," he says. "I was not ready, musically or spiritually speaking, to do it. When I thought I was, I went into the studio...I recorded Codes myself, but [my label] Blue Note wanted to be the first to hear it and they picked it up." The album features original compositions, updates of old Cuban songs and fresh interpretations of lesserknown works by Gillespie, Chick Corea, Wayne Shorter and Antonio Carlos Jobim, all with unexpected arrangements and dynamic solos that highlight the myriad influences of Berroa's music. "I call it Codes because it takes the codes from Afro-Cuban music, straight ahead Jazz and some Brazilian rhythms. I take the codes from Samba to Bolero and mix them up, combining Afro-Cuban rhythms with other styles," explains Berroa. "For my concert [in Israel] I will be playing mostly music from the album." Contributing to his album and also joining him in Jerusalem is Puerto Rican saxophonist David Sanchez, whom Berroa describes as one of the greatest saxophonists of the last 10 years. Sanchez won a Latin Grammy Award for his 2005 album Coral and has worked with Berroa on many projects, starting back in 1990 when Sanchez was invited to join Gillespie's United Nations Orchestra. The other members of Berroa's quintet are bassist Armando Gola, who also plays with Berroa in the Gonzalo Rubalcaba trio, and two young musicians from the Miami scene: Robert Rodriguez on piano and Conrado Garcia on congas/percussion, both of whom are scions of prominent Cuban-American musical families. This will be Berroa's third visit to Israel: he played the Red Sea Jazz Festival in Eilat in 2003 with Gonzalo Rubalcaba and performed in Jerusalem in the late Eighties with Dizzy Gillespie. "I've been all over the world, and I am very much looking forward to come to Israel [again]," he relates. In fact, he already has another trip scheduled in just a few months: a return appearance with outstanding pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba in August at the Red Sea Jazz Festival. The Ignacio Berroa Quintet featuring David Sanchez plays at 9 p.m. on Thursday, June 22 at the old train station compound in Jerusalem. Tickets are NIS 135 and can be ordered at 02-623-7000, 02-622-2333 or 03-604-5000. Berroa will also give a free drum clinic at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, June 21 at the Yellow Submarine, 13 Harehavim St. in Talpiot, Jerusalem. For a complete schedule of the concerts and events of the Jerusalem Jazz Festival see: www.jjf.org.il.