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Dafnis Prieto: Turning Ideas Into Proverbs

Anthony Dean-Harris
Editor-in-Chief / @i_ADH

The who of this story is a relatively simple question: Cuban-born drummer/composer Dafnis Prieto. The when is clearly now in the midst of Prieto's busy 2012. Hot off the heels of receiving the MacArthur "Genius" grant last year, Prieto is trucking through a cadre of projects that he's been tinkering with for some time and are now being sprung on us all. The what of these projects is the exciting part-- he's putting the finishing touches on the first of a two volume book of drumming, preparing his first album release from his own record label, Dafnison Music, that isn't his own but that of an alto saxophonist friend, and especially getting the word out on his latest album, Proverb Trio with keyboardist Jason Lindner and spoken word artist Kokayi. (Out now.)

The question of why is where things go off for a bit (but that's always the fun part). The easy answer to this is that the inspiration for Prieto's latest release, Proverb Trio, is sparked from the support by his recent MacArthur "genius" grant (Prieto is a 2011 fellow), but really this has been brewing for some time. Prieto and Kokayi have been working together since the 90s. "Kokayi, I met him actually, believe it or not, in Cuba... He was rapping, freestyling with Steve Coleman and I saw them. I was really impressed and inspired for what they were doing musically. And then we started playing on and off with Steve through the years. Then there was this possibility in Saalfelden Jazz Festival in Austria to do a small performance during the festival and we decided to do it, Kokayi and myself, voice and drums. That was the real beginning of the Proverb Trio. And then after that, we actually through the next two or three years, we started having special guests with the duo. We had Steve Coleman; we also had Henry Threadgill as a guest, but I needed in order to really make a wide spectrum of sound as I wanted to be, to have somebody steady with us and I had a great relationship musically and personally with Jason Lindner since I came here to the U.S. in 1999, but [also] after that through some work of his and some work of my own like the Absolute Quintet which he was part of... And I felt a great empathy and connection with him musically when we were improvising so I invited him to be part of the trio and since then we have been since three years ago. We've been together, linked with each other."

Dafnis Prieto Proverb Trio EPK

The Proverb Trio, birthed from a suggestion made back when it was just a duo, is a name meant to capture the idea of a group that speaks of ancient proverbs and a kind of forward movement (pro-verb). It's a group designed to do a lot with a little, based on the magic kernel that is the trio form, especially through the multi-faceted sonic palette of Jason Lindner. "...Jason is able to provide a wide range of possibility through his keyboards. One of his great qualities is that he has a great imagination and he has a great sense of how to use sound so the [smaller] the connection, the more [intimate] it gets and the [purer], in a way, it gets. Having me link that connection with Jason and vice versa and through Kokayi, which he's already part of the ensemble, that makes a huge difference because we can relate more with each other one-on-one than we can with six or seven or eight or nine... The idea of the trio is we actually trust each other and I trust what Jason, since we invited him to be part of the trio, that he was going to take care of all this amount of possibilities harmonically, rhythmically, in terms of textures... and a variety of sounds. So I thought he was the perfect man for it."

While the group have been performing off and on for the past three years, Prieto considers this the time to put out a recorded album after spending this much time developing the trio's deep connection. Yet part of the reason why this album is coming into fruition now is based on the support of Prieto's recent award of the MacArthur "Genius" grant1, a fellowship previously awarded to the likes of pianist Jason Moran, Treme screenwriter David Simon, saxophonist Miguel Zenón, violinist Regina Carter, and novelist Colson Whitehead among many others over the past thirty years. "It really is very unpredictable and yet very exciting. It's just a phone call that the director of the MacArthur gives you personally and I received that call and they told me that I just happened to receive the award. And that is actually about it. After that, they don't really have a ceremony or anything else involved in it. Then you start getting more attention just because of the meaning of the award itself. It affects the professional career, also, because... now I have attention from the media and other sources but also I have more time for me to create what I've been dreaming about and things that wouldn't be possible if I didn't have this economical, [financial] help."

How this trio makes this spectacular music is the real marvelous part. "The concept is actually based on spontaneous improvisation. It reflects through empathy between the three of us and a very refined communication between the three of us in order to improvise and make compositional elements into the music that we're doing at that moment... There's not really any [preconceived] idea. We just jump off into space and time and we just let it be. Everyday comes differently. The excitement and the beauty of this is actually to make it compositionally oriented. It's not only for the sake of doing something improvised to sound precisely like a lot of ideas trying to get together. It's a little bit more than that. Instead of trying to get together, we make them compositionally be together at that same moment." So yes, there's nothing written beforehand but as opposed to free jazz, the three are working together to make real songs with real form, Kokayi's freestyling and ad libs included. "We did the session in two ways. The first part, we did long tunes or any idea that comes in, [we] try to develop to different places... In the second part, we choose to have smaller ideas, kind of that resembles... a song. We did it that way in the second part of the record. But in the performance, we do both. We can either play a very small piece of three or four minutes or we can go for fifteen minutes playing and changing the tune, it's a journey. So sometimes we don't feel like ending the tune and sometimes we feel like ending it. It has different shapes and qualities in it...

"I wanted with this specific album to have a very specific variety of how we can present a song. So there are not really fifteen minute songs within the album, but some of the things that are inside the album are part of that bigger structure... and whoever listens to the album can perceive that we do a lot of changing of textures inside of one tune as well."

In the meantime when he's not constantly performing, Prieto is steadily working on his two volume drum book, or really a book on drumming, a labor of love that Prieto has been excited about for many years that's finally coming together and is poised to release on Prieto's label hopefully next year. "I always say that it's a book on drumming because it has a lot of analytical and philosophical reflections inside as well as a lot of rhythmic content inside..." However, despite his excitement, he's having trouble coming up with a title. "I'm trying to see the whole first... the ideas are solid, meaning that there [are] a lot of chapters materialized already and conceived and developed. We're just trying to edit some parts of it and then move on." Considering the ebullience and energy he shows in all his endeavors, it's understandable why it's hard for him to nail all his ideas down to a title like that.

That's just the way these purported geniuses work -- they have a lot of things they want to say. The really great ones have many different ways they want to say it. Fortunately, when it comes to Dafnis Prieto, his 2012 seems to indicate that he's living up to the title.

Be on the lookout for Dafnis Prieto playing with his sextet at the Newport Jazz Festival this weekend on August 4. Don't worry about missing it; NPR has got you covered for this and the rest of the festival.

1.However, the MacArthur fellowship is the not end-all and be all of how the project came to be. Prieto has had his own record label, Dafnison Music, since 2008. Through this label, he has put out his last three albums (out of five recordings as a bandleader). It's also worth noting that the label is now expanding to include the release of alto saxophonist Roman Filiu, a friend of Prieto's from Cuba.

Anthony Dean-Harris hosts the modern jazz radio show, The Line-Up, Fridays at 9pm CST on 91.7 FM KRTU San Antonio. More of his writing can be found at his blog, In Retrospect and you can also follow him on Twitter.