January 2005

Nick "Brownman" Ali
A post Havana conversation

Saturday night at Lula Lounge means Salsa! This is where you will find Nick "Brownman" Ali and his band, Marrón Matizado the first Saturday of every month. And this is where I caught up with him to talk about his experience at the 2004 Havana Jazz Festival.

The Live Music Report When was the first time you performed in the Havana Jazz Festival?

Nick "Brownman" Ali It all sort of relates back to meeting the trumpet players from the legendary latin-jazz large ensemble Irakere in 2000 when they were here to play for the Toronto Jazz Festival. I met both Basilio Marquez and Julito Padron backstage and it was the beginning of a strong friendship across an ocean. Then in 2001 I was in Havana for the first time... but not to perform, just to study. Of course I spent a lot of time with Basilio and Julito while there and really trying to live with clave, to get inside it. They were both incredibly gracious and generous and I developed strong friendships with both of them. In 2002 I would be invited to perform at the festival and Julito put together a group comprised of half Irakere members and half Afro-Cuban All-stars. Was a huge honour to stand amongst them and be treated like an equal — which I definitely did not feel like — but was gratified by how easily they were willing to accept into their midst this jazz guy messing around with their heritage. I would then be slotted as a guest artist with other Cuban bands and end up performing with Diakara, El Greco, The Ellington's (Duke Ellington's kids), Danilo Perez, side-by-side with Roy Hargrove. Was really such an honour. Then this year, 2004 the festival asked me to bring my whole band if possible (Cruzao). Flights are extremely expensive and — with the gracious help of the Canada Council for the Arts — my brother and I (who comprise the front line of Cruzao) were able to go down there with my Cruzao compositions and build a Cuban version of the band... Cruzao Havana they were calling it. Ramses Rodriguez (from Chucho Valdés' Quartet) on drums, Yaroldi (from Irakere) on congas, Nestor Del Prado (from Interactivo) on bass, my brother and myself. What a band!

Nick "Brownman" Ali at Lula Lounge
LMR This was, I believe, the first time you were asked to bring your band, how did that come about?

Brownman Mainly because Cruzao got some strong Cuban airplay from my time there in 2002... by the time 2004 rolled around, the group was known in the Cuban latin-jazz community and I had the endorsement of the Irakere members... which is musical currency for validation. So Chucho asked us to come down and represent Canada for 2004. An honour.

LMR How was it being there as a band leader rather than as a guest musician?

Brownman Very different... much larger headaches... and much larger pressures. I had to find guys to play the tunes who could read, who would kill the music, who understood the whole concept of "chordless" latin-jazz and then rehearse them. And in Cuba it's really hard to get things done... organization isn't one of their fortes, but it's made up for by unbelievable passion and spirit when they play. I was still a guest musician with other bands in addition to leading Cruzao down there, so the pressures were doubled. Was a pretty harrowing time rehearsing by day, running from venue to venue at night and always wondering when the next problem would arise. But in the end, the magic of playing that music at that level in the birthplace of clave made it all worth it.

LMR How were the audiences?

Brownman They were small but attentive... there's so much going on at the festival — a million bands to see a million performers to catch... everyone can't be everywhere at once. I, personally, much prefer small crowds with their eyes glued to the band... it's more intimate and personal... crowd response is often better than when it's a swaying mob who are there as much for the ambience of being part of a crowd of thousands as they are for the band.

LMR Do you go and play in Havana at other times?

Brownman I wish! It's so busy back here in Canada that it's hard to get away. I lead five groups of my own, co-lead 3 others, and am the musical director for 3 more. It's a lot to juggle — but I feel very very lucky to be able to be artistic every day and have venues and groups who want my horn associated with them.

LMR You told me Basilio Marques is a mentor to you, how did that come about? What has it meant to you?

Brownman Mainly from my time in Cuba in the past — he's always been so kind and giving... it's just in his nature. I think I'm just one of many who feel that way about Basilio. He has helped to shape the new sound of lead trumpet players in Cuba — Basilio and Alexander Abreau are like two Cuban gods on trumpet. To stand between them at the closing ceremonies when I played with Irakere was an incredible experience. They both drip with Cuban lineage and I felt so grateful to stand between them and try and soak some of it up.

Brownman in Havana — December 2004
LMR You soloed at the closing concert, tell us about that.

Brownman Oh man — that was Basilio's fault! I knew I'd be soloing — Chucho told me he'd nod at me when he wanted me to blow. But the thing is — I didn't know WHEN that would happen... so — of course — it's the middle of this BLAZINGLY fast afro-cuban tune and the whole band is just GIVIN'ER and Chucho looks at me and nods. I was like "what?!?! On THIS tune?!?" But when Chucho nods at you, there's no saying no... so in I dove. I wasn't very happy with that solo, the tempo was kickin' my butt — but just to solo with that band was incredible... Enrique Pla (drums) responding to everything I did and Yaroldi playing some of my own lines back at me from the conga chair with a big smile on his face. We had spent so much time together already in Cruzao, that bond of friendship was showing up musically. Was amazing. So I finished and Basilio's grinning at me — and solos after me. Man. Talk about a monster! So now it's getting to the end of the night and the band is playing another afro-cuban tune... and I'm sort of noodling quietly off mic to get inside the tune when Basilo turns to me and goes "you want to solo on this?"... my eyes widen and I go "me? on THIS? no no no, I was just enjoying the harmonic motion of the..." and before I can finish my sentence he kinda pushes me off the riser we're on while pointing to the front of the stage. I sorta stumble and land off the riser in full view of the camera which spins around to see what's going on in the trumpet section... so now I'm comitted. I head to the front of the stage... looking back long enough to see Basilio smiling and waving at me. The bastard. Laughing. So I go to the front and blow. And when it's all over the crowd erupts and Chucho again gives me a gracious nod and a smile. It was a highlight of my career. I got to solo at the front of one of the greatest latin-jazz orchestras in the history of the artform. Talk about living a dream. Yeah... Cuba was good this year.

January 2005

Interview and Photographs by Roger Humbert
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