Off the beaten path of Latin jazz lies “Duende”

Boston Globe, February 24, 2007

When pianist Nando Michelin arrived in Boston from his native Uruguay in 1989 to study at Berklee, he imagined that, like many other jazz students, he’d complete his degree and quickly move on, to New York and points beyond.

But to the great benefit of the New England jazz scene, things didn’t work out that way. Today, Michelin is a local stalwart who lives in Arlington, makes his living teaching at Tufts and privately, and is a prolific composer and arranger with seven albums as a leader and many more as a sought-after sideman in both straight-ahead and Latin settings. Yet his work is also something of a well-kept secret.

But if there is any justice, Michelin’s latest album, “Duende,” a fluid and literate trio date with drummer Richie Barshay and bassist Esperanza Spalding, will change all of that. And the record release event, Wednesday at Ryles in Cambridge, should double as a delayed-but-deserved coming-out party.

A tight, accomplished album, “Duende” finds Michelin letting go of a didactic tendency that made earlier albums into concept pieces – “Art,” for instance, with its songs devoted to different modern visual artists, or “Chants: A Candomble Experience,” a program of jazz extrapolations of Afro-Brazilian mystical chants that will leave perplexed anyone looking, on the basis of the title, for the “authentic” experience.

Then again, Michelin does not present himself as a cultural messenger – quite the contrary. He has made his career exploring the relationship between Latin music and jazz improvisation and forging a wholly personal voice that draws on both. This quest, he says on the phone, dates back to his first band in Uruguay, and it was to pursue it that he uprooted himself to come to Berklee.

“I was on the same road then that I am now,” he says, “doing improvisational music, trying to put South American rhythms in, but to get away from the predictable. Develop the rhythms to get away from the patterns. I began to understand how bebop players got away from playing the basic notes and harmonies, how drummers got away from four to the floor. I wondered why people didn’t do that with Latin jazz.”

Of course, jazz and Latin rhythms have been in dialogue ever since Mario Bauza and Dizzy Gillespie gigged in Spanish Harlem. But with a proliferation of musicians from all over Latin America, not to mention the myriad paths improvisational music has taken since bebop, possibilities today are endless. They extend from the eclectic neotraditionalism of Marta Gomez, who works in numerous South American styles, to the structured conversation of Brian Lynch and Eddie Palmieri’s project that just won a Grammy.

Michelin takes a different approach. “Traditional players get very jealous when you play in their style,” he says. “They get so involved in tradition – and that’s good, because someone has to keep it. But some Afro-Cuban cats become the clave police. Sometimes you have to let the music expand and other influences go into it.”

His own method, Michelin says, is what feels natural to his experience as an expatriate in an era of globalization. “It doesn’t make sense for me to stick to one style,” he says. “It wouldn’t feel honest. Up to this time I was more focused on specific styles, but now I’m at the point where I’m not afraid to throw in a montuno” – a classic percussive piano form in Latin jazz – “in a tune that has no Afro-Cuban elements.”

Thus, “Duende” doesn’t proceed according to a template. In fact, it’s an album full of Latin influences, but it evades any kind of predictable Latin connotation. It’s a loose, fluid, idiosyncratic jazz trio session that wears its scholarship lightly.

“I wanted it to feel natural, not eclectic,” Michelin says. “My ideal would be to work in a lot of different styles but still sound like one band, one project. It’s like a funnel, where different things go in but they come out together, channeling all the influences.”

Michelin is the first to admit that the personnel in his new trio are key to the record’s success. Spalding and Barshay combine youthful verve – both are in their early 20s – with an abundance of talent that has earned them intense buzz on the national jazz scene. Spalding is not only a powerful bassist but also a stirring nonverbal singer – a vocal technique that is hard to get right, let alone while playing bass.

Spalding, a Berklee grad who is now based in New York, says she began to work with Michelin after they met in the Boston Brazilian music scene.

“His writing was just amazing,” she says. “I had never heard composing like that before.” She credits this partly to Michelin’s South American musical sensibility and background. She also lauds his temperament as a colleague: “Even in our rehearsals, with my brain overloaded with information, it was so beautiful. He has a very positive, joyful spirit.”

Barshay, who is equally versed on drum set and percussion like the tabla, will miss the Ryles gig, having been called to join veteran pianist Kenny Werner on a new European tour. (He has also worked with Herbie Hancock.) A Brazilian drummer with similar versatility, Rogerio Boccato, will sit in, as will singers Teresa Ines and Alida Rohr.

Michelin, Spalding, and Barshay will be back in the studio in the next couple of months to record a second trio album. They know they are onto a good thing, having tapped into the “duende” that the album’s title references. It’s a term from flamenco that Michelin describes as “like a little elf that takes over you and plays. It’s a nice way of defining that which has no definition. You can’t develop it, but you can develop being open to it.

“It’s similar to Candomble,” he says, returning to the Brazilian mysticism that is close to his heart. “When you gather in a room and call the African saints, and they come down. People who prepare to be channels for the saints have to learn to be open to it. The trio is the same thing. You can’t force things to happen.”