Dazzling Cuban expat violinist Omar Puente will be performing as part of the Jazzwise 20th Anniversary Special Festival at Ronnie Scott's on 17 March. In a recent interview with Jazzwise, Puente spoke with Kevin Le Gendre about spanning the distance between populism and abstraction while maintaining his identity amid a collision of global cultures
In front of the billboards of branded images bursting into 3D life for the 5G generation in Piccadilly Circus, central London, two buskers, a double bassist and violinist mark out their pitch on a crowded pavement, immobile in the endless stream of smartphones. Omar Puente is momentarily distracted by the smaller of the two instruments as we log out of the hubbub in search of a chillout zone in this hyped and hyper part of town. In the relative sanctuary of nearby Golden Square the genial Cuban expat makes an interesting point about why he does not own an axe similar to the one he’s just hawk-eyed.
“To buy an acoustic violin may cost £20,000 to £50,000… to have a really good one,” he says. “With an electric one I can reduce the costs, I can afford one and I can also compete with the drums, with the trumpet, with the whole band, and it will cost me £2,000-3,000.
“It’s a very different experience playing and hearing the notes on an electric violin,” he continues. “On an acoustic there is the air between the instrument and the microphone. You are the one that creates the quality of the sound. On the electric it is really the soundman who creates the quality of the sound, so you have to know exactly what you want, to then create your own thing with the right engineer.”
Puente is very much true to his word on his new album Best Foot Forward, a thrilling work that is a significant step along the road of his creative development following his auspicious 2009 debut From There To Here. Although the common denominator between both albums is a robust eclecticism this new offering has, for the most part, a heavier, harder character in which a sharply-drilled rhythm section, topped by Al MacSween’s strident keyboards, provides a high energy backdrop to Puente’s violin, which has been so well mixed by Sam Hobbs that it sounds as if he is as close as the street players we just passed.
Although the leader makes liberal use of the kind of pedals, from the whammy to the crybaby, that one would expect to find in a guitarist’s arsenal the quality of his improvisations and the articulation of his phrases serve as a reminder of the enviably high-standard of training available to the vast majority of Cuban musicians. Born in Santiago in 1961 to a mother who was a nurse and a father who was both a doctor and violinist, Puente won a scholarship to study classical music at the renowned Escuela Nacional De Arte in Havana at the age of 12. He went on to join the prestigious National Symphony Orchestra Of Cuba, where he further consolidated his skills as a section player, and Puente eventually found himself drawn to jazz through Irakere, the revered Cuban band led by pianist Chucho Valdes that is defined by its patchwork of acoustic son, bebop, European classical music, electric funk and rock. Furthermore, Puente attended master classes in Havana conducted by trumpet legend Dizzy Gillespie, but it was his attendance at a concert by other innovators that proved a turning point in his life.
“In 1979 Weather Report came to Havana,” he tells me, a broad smile lighting up his face as he sips coffee outside the chic Nordic Bakery. “By that time they were touring the world, and this was really another level. Wow! That was something… it had a big effect on us.”
Without pausing for breath the 55-year-old adds that during his formative years the listening policy was access-all-areas, from Nat ‘King’ Cole, an icon in Cuba, to salsa to jazz to pop, but there was something special in the way the Zawinul-Shorter-Pastorius-Erskine vehicle managed to negotiate the highways and byways of numerous folk traditions, be they African, Latin or European, all the while allowing the strength of character of each bandmember to come to the fore.
The combination of populism and abstraction was inspired and inspiring for Puente first and foremost because it brought home to him the necessity of retaining one’s essential identity amid the embrace of music from any culture and era. Whether his own songs have echoes of Senegalese mbalaax, Detroit soul or London techno, the sounds to which he has been exposed throughout his life as a global citizen, Puente is still intent on being a violinist from Santiago De Cuba.
“I can’t pretend to be a Brazilian or African musician. I’m a Cuban musician who has had the opportunity to play, see and learn and experience many things and all kinds of music,” he states emphatically.
“I don’t have to play salsa or guanganco, but there has to be something there that is me as a Cuban. It doesn’t have to be the sound of the clavé [percussion] because that is already inside the music in the overall rhythm. I just try to be as true to myself as I can in my playing and writing, to be honest to my roots. Every time you write you have the influence of other things, different instruments, bands, styles. But there’s still you, if you’re being honest.
“I think there are always elements of religion and belief in the music, not only through instruments like bata drums. One way or another, we as Cubans, well, everybody knows who is Eleggua, Shango and Yemenja… these orishas [deities]. Doesn’t matter if you’re white or black, it’s universally in the culture, you don’t have to be really religious, it’s your culture. The Afro-Cuban religion has made the most impact, everybody knows something about Santeria; they might not know all the details, but they know the basics. It is handed down from generation to generation, like the oral tradition. Unfortunately, our indigenous population was wiped out by the Spanish, so maybe we have just a few instruments or dances from them. But what the Africans brought to Cuba – culture, religion and instruments… that’s one of our foundations. Whether I’m doing Motown or funk or reggae I still have an element of Cuban music because it’s really strong. My first album From There To Here was the journey to Britain. Now it’s 20 years of being in the UK, with the modern sounds you get on the street.”
That move happened in 1995 after Puente had been living the nomadic life of an international touring musician. He had worked with the likes of Orqesta Enrique Jorrin and Jose Maria Vitier and ended up playing an extended residency in Singapore. It was there that he met and fell in love with the woman with whom he returned to England and eventually married, the late journalist Debbie Purdy. They settled in Bradford, Yorkshire but Puente soon came to the attention of saxophonist Courtney Pine in London who asked him to join his regular working group, and then the Jazz Warriors Afropeans big band. Through his association with Pine and other black British musicians he learned more about the folk and popular music of the West Indies. But he also notes that it was an unfortunate incident of racial stereotyping in the Far East that initially brought him into contact with Jamaican music.
“There I am in Singapore doing this residency, and the owner of the venue says to me ‘all the latin music and latin jazz is very nice but I need you to change’,” Puente explains. “What do you want me to play?’ He says, ‘I want you to play reggae.’ I say, ‘But I’m Cuban not Jamaican.’ “Yes, but you’re black, so you play reggae, right?” Puente says with a wry smile on his face. “I rang Debbie and I said to her if I don’t play reggae they’re not gonna pay me, and she sent me Legend, the Bob Marley compilation. So I was introduced to Bob Marley, me a black Cuban guy, by a white British woman… in Singapore!”
A sufferer of multiple sclerosis, Purdy would go on to be a valiant champion of the right for assisted suicide, and a high-profile campaign saw her take her case to the High Court. She challenged existing legislation to ensure that Puente would not be prosecuted if he travelled abroad with her should she chose to end her own life.
“This album is a new chapter in my life. I dedicated it to Debbie, she really named the album, ‘best foot forward’, meaning you have to keep going, no matter what happens. She was like my right hand. I am who I am because of Debbie Purdy. I can play the violin but the person who believed in me and pushed me was Debbie, so it’s really about her.”
Unsurprisingly, her passing in December 2014 had a devastating effect on Puente, who had very little appetite for playing music. “I went through a period where I didn’t wanna talk to anybody,” he recalls. “People wanted to help but I was just on my own, I didn’t practice, I didn’t play. But after a year I came back. Thank god I had the violin, thank god I had the music, thank god for that. Without that I really don’t know. She was a strong woman to have to go through pain all the time… it was tough. She was a young woman, but I’ve been using her spirit, and every single note I play is for Debbie.”
This interview originally appeared in the August 2016 issue of Jazzwise. To find out more about subscribing to Jazzwise, visit: www.jazzwisemagazine.com/subscribe