Jane Bunnett's Affair With Cuban Jazz Still Sizzles

Canadian saxophonist has been performing and recording with Cuban artists since the early '90s.

Toronto soprano saxophonist/flutist Jane Bunnett first caught the Cuban jazz bug when she and her trumpeter husband, Larry Cramer, visited Santiago, on the southeastern part of the island, in 1985.

Arriving at the airport, they were greeted by a band playing live music. Throughout their stay, the music never stopped.

"The music was deep," Bunnett, 43, said from a hotel in Winnipeg, Canada. "It really affected people, and it meant a lot to their lives."

Since that trip, Bunnett has immersed herself in the musical traditions of Cuba. In 1992 she released her first all-Cuban-styled album, Spirits of Havana (Messidor Records) (RealAudio excerpt), with Cuban artists who were unknown outside of their own country. Six of her 10 CDs feature Cuban jazz.

In tours throughout the years Bunnett has brought more than 40 Cuban musicians to North America. She's performed with them in Cuba as well and used them on her albums. She also has set up a charity called the Spirits of Music that raises funds to upgrade dilapidated instruments in Cuba's conservatories. In the jazz world, Bunnett is known as "Havana Jane."

And this fall, Bunnett will hit the film festival circuit with an as-yet-unnamed documentary about her experiences on the island.

Ritmo + Soul, released in May on Blue Note, continues the blending of Cuban and jazz traditions, adding musicians such as New York-based kalimba player and singer Njacko Backo to a lineup that includes pianist Hilario Duran and bata titan Pancho Quinto. The album contains the track "Joyful Noise" (RealAudio excerpt).

Before embracing Cuban music, Bunnett was a cutting-edge jazz artist who worked with some of the top players in the genre — folks such as saxophonist Dewey Redman and pianist Don Pullen, who died in 1995.

A San Francisco Change

She had been studying classical piano in Canada when she spent a month in San Francisco.

"I heard [bassist Charles] Mingus' group at Keystone Korner," she said. "I heard that group night after night, and it was really amazing. And when I came back from that trip, that's when I decided I wanted to play jazz."

Because she was struggling with tendinitis, she decided to pick up the flute she had purchased in high school.

"I started to play and just tried to learn," she said. "I took classes and hung out with musicians to try and learn as much as I could about the music. That's really how the whole thing snowballed."

She added soprano saxophone to her arsenal, and then met Cramer. "That was a big step, because he knew so much more about music and had a great record collection," she said with a laugh.

After studying with soprano saxophone master Steve Lacy and pianist Barry Harris, Bunnett began to explore adventurous jazz and improvisational music with Cramer and a score of players she calls her "heroes," including alto saxophonist John Tchicai, drummer Andrew Cyrille, pianists Stanley Cowell and Paul Bley and trumpeter Marcus Belgrave.

She was a quick study. Her first album, 1988's In Dew Time (Dark Light) features Redman, Pullen and French horn player Vincent Chancey. The following year's New York Duets (Music & Arts) is a collaboration with Pullen, and 1990's Live at Sweet Basil (Denon) features a quintet with Billy Hart on drums.

Before Ry Cooder

After that, it was mainly Cuba all the way. And though she has been promoting Cuban musicians long before guitarist-producer Ry Cooder discovered the Buena Vista Social Club, she is jazzed at the visibility he has brought to the island.

"It's just an incredible success," she says generously. "I'm really, really happy for those musicians, because it's just give such new life to those guys and, of course, created a huge interest in Cuban music.

"I wish there were more people like Ry Cooder that would be able to rejuvenate so many careers. Because as there is, there's just so many great musicians there, and it's just the tip of the iceberg.

"You just hope that people will go further with something like that and really investigate. And I hope maybe with our film, that that's what will happen."

Jane Bunnett tour dates:

July 15; Richmond, Va.; Big Gig

July 16; Ottawa, Ontario; Ottawa Jazz Festival

July 22; Killaloe, Ontario; Killaloe Arts Festival

Aug. 5; Erie, Pa.; Erie Jazz Festival

Aug. 6; Litchfield, Conn.; Litchfield Jazz Festival

Aug. 7–8; Bethlehem, Pa.; Bethlehem Musikfest

Aug. 17; Neenah, Wis.; Automatic Slims

Aug. 18; Chicago, Ill.; Hot House