Thursday, September 21, 2017

'Loyal Cuban guy' proud of his American success as 'straight-ahead jazz drummer' makes Indy Jazz Fest visit

Ignacio Berroa spent ten years as Dizzy Gillespie's drummer — a hiring milestone for the superstar musician who had long the Jazz Kitchen,  Gillespie didn't engage him to play Latin percussion, but to be the sole man behind the trap set driving his band no matter what the musical idiom.
Ignacio Berroa focuses fruitfully at the Jazz Kitchen.
cultivated the fusion of Cuban music and bebop. As Berroa put it plainly Wednesday night when he brought his Cubop Quintet to

In its short first set as part of the 2017 Indy Jazz Fest, the quintet sailed through a half-dozen tunes associated with Gillespie, who came into his own with the birth of bebop in the 1940s and remained active until shortly before his death in 1993. Near the end, as was clear in a Clowes Hall appearance I reviewed for the Indianapolis Star, he had next to no breath support for the instrument on which he remains one of the handful of major innovators. The 19-year-old Indianapolis festival has taken note of the birth centennials of Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald, and (somewhat meagerly) Thelonious Monk.

Berroa's group sounded fully compatible Wednesday, projecting the self-confidence of a much more seasoned ensemble. Musical director John Zappa played a blazing trumpet, nimble like Gillespie's but with a stinging tone effectively recalling Indianapolis' own Freddie Hubbard.

Standing shoulder to shoulder with him in the front line was J.D. Allen, a tenor saxophonist whose playing ranged over the instrument's entire compass; he was thrilling in the lower register, and generally eschewed the piercing, partly shredded sound at the top, except for "A Night in Tunisia" — giving free rein to a notion that ought to have been resisted. His solos generally followed the reassuring Lester Young dictum: "Tell me a story."

Hard-digging pianist Mike Darrah showed lots of rhythmic punch throughout the set. I liked how he helped define the rhythmic contour through slight hesitations punctuating the line. I treasured his Monk-like solo on "Ow," one of the few Gillespie tunes I'm certain was played in the first set. There were no tune announcements except before the one that didn't need it: the finale — "A Night in Tunisia."

I connected with Gillespie's "Ow" in part because of its basis in the chord changes of "I Got Rhythm." That Gershwin song has more abundant "contrafacts" (the term used for jazz melodies based on other songs) than any other. I thought I was hearing "Whispering" as the underpinning of the next-to-last piece, so I'm guessing that was "Groovin' High." Dizzy Gillespie is part of the wide spectrum of my jazz listening, but I often come across familiar music that I can't put a name to. That's how things stood Thursday night; the first three pieces I'm not about to hazard a guess about. Contributions and corrections are welcome!

"Salt Peanuts," one of the few Gillespie tunes I never fail to recognize (who can forget President Jimmy Carter's rendition of the refrain during a jazz celebration at the White House?), was quoted briefly in Darrah's solo in the opening number.

Bassist Aaron Jacobs stayed mostly in the background, but seemed to be lending unerring support to his colleagues.

Berroa took his only extensive solo to launch what I think was "Groovin' High," starting on tom-toms and cohesively expanding his patterns to the whole kit. His accompaniments were always geared to what the sidemen were doing. I particularly liked his vigorous comping — always complementary, never dominating —  behind Darrah on "Tunisia," a predictably high-spirited version that ended on notes of splendor in out-of-tempo cadenzas by Zappa and Allen.


[Photo by Mark Sheldon]