After an extended vacation of travel with family capped off by a bout of the mosquito virus called dengue fever, I arrived back in Cabarete just in time for a long weekend, during which I had the chance to interview pianist Jairo Milanes at a Dominican-Mexican restaurant in Puerto Plata.
Jairo discussed his experiences touring with Juan Luis Guerra (one of the few Dominican musicians to become popular internationally) as well as his current Latin jazz fusion composition projects and his performances with saxophonist, Sandy Gabriel.
Pianist Jairo Milanes shares a book of solo transcriptions with me during our meeting.
My favorite question to ask in interviews is, “Why mix jazz and Dominican music?”
Here is Jairo’s answer:
“Quiero hacer un mezclado de merengue con jazz porque esos son nuestros ritmos…Es muy importante siempre agregar merengue o la música propia [para] aportar la música propia de aquí.”
His thoughts were similar to other musicians I’ve spoken to, who focus on connecting to their cultural identity and incorporating local rhythms into their music, whether merengue, bachata, or palos. Though Jairo emphasized merengue, he showed me recordings of him playing every type of music, from reggae to rock to jazz to funk. He said that this versatility is a must for musicians who want to make a living in the Dominican Republic, where playing opportunities are oftentimes limited.
Enough talk…time to check out his music!
Jairo recommended a Sandy Gabriel album that he plays on called Jazzeando, and specifically his own composition entitled “Arcoiris” (“Rainbow”):
This recording embodies the genre of fusion, bridging a jazz-funk melody with a Latin jazz solo section. Despite the stark contrast, the feel is tight throughout, and Jairo’s keyboard solos in both funk and Latin jazz styles develop through an impressive build-up of energy.
To listen to more of this unique album, check it out on Spotify I especially recommend:
• Another Jairo composition called “Fusion in F” (track 9), with a similar mix of “feels” and an emphasis on funk
• A merengue version of the Dizzy Gillespie Latin jazz tune “Manteca” (track 8) featuring Puerto Rican percussionist, Giovanni Hidalgo
• And a super-rápido version Cuban pianist Chucho Valdez’ tune “Mambo Influenciado” (track 2) featuring Valdez on piano and Jairo Milanes on accordion
Jairo also discussed his experiences touring with Juan Luis Guerra – everywhere from Japan to New York to Israel. When we met, he was getting ready to tour New York, Boston, Canada, and Puerto Rico. So if anyone reading this in the US is thinking of seeing him live, the concert will probably look and sound something like this:
It’s not something you want to miss!
I’ll leave you with one more Juan Luis recording, from his first album, Soplando. He recorded it soon after graduating from Berklee, and jazz influences are more prominent than in some of his later work, especially in the harmonies of the vocal quartet.