Alongside the equipment commonly found in a jazz drum kit—toms, snare, kick drum, wood blocks, high hat, cymbals—drummer Dafnis Prieto mounts an unorthodox percussive instrument: a frying pan.
The pan echoes his Cuban background, in which rhythmic noise-making is a communal art form. “People in Cuba, they use it for Carnival and stuff,” says Prieto.
No special materials or characteristics are required. “I picked up the one that sounds good,” he says.
Prieto’s astonishingly clean and complex drumming is distinguished by a composer’s attention to every detail of sound—tone, timbre, timing, touch, dynamics. Playing sounds off one another, polyrhythmically at warp speed, Prieto transforms the drum kit into a percussive orchestra. Over that rhythmic engine, he floats tightly structured compositions that bring together elements of European chamber music, native Cuban music and American jazz.
Thursday night at the Outpost, Prieto’s Absolute Quintet (with Jason Lindner, Hammond B3 organ and keyboards; Yosvany Terry, saxophone; Ilmar Gavilan, violin; and Dana Leong, cello) will fry up irresistible rhythms from his 2006 Grammy-nominated CD, Absolute Quintet (zoho), along with new music.
Born in Santa Clara, Cuba, and educated at the National School of Music in Havana, Prieto came to the United States in 1999. While he had played jazz on the side in Cuba, his exposure to American jazz drumming traditions was limited.
“I started playing congas and bongos,” he explains. “When I started playing trap sets, it opened my mind. It’s a universal instrument basically, so therefore, it’s a universal language for me.”
Prieto can play many types of music—jazz, Cuban, funk, whatever—but he doesn’t divide drumming into stylistic categories. “It’s all music to me,” he says. “It’s not really about classification of the rhythm. I play the rhythm that music needs at that moment, and for me, it doesn’t matter what name we put on it.”
Once the technical conception for a piece is in place, he says, “you put the sound in it that it really needs. That’s the part that I like.”
His approach has won him work with a long list of leading musicians, from the boundary-pushing Henry Threadgill and Steve Coleman to the more mainstream Ed Simon and Michel Camilo to the Latin jazz icons Eddie Palmieri and Jane Bunnett.
The close attention to the sound reflects Prieto’s exceptional and widely recognized talents as a composer. The music he writes for the Absolute Quintet consciously blends several styles. European chamber music, native Cuban music and American jazz are all represented in the group’s unusual instrumentation.
“I want to join these things—the chamber [music] and the jazz and the Latin stuff,” he says.
Prieto’s compositions, though rigorously structured, seem to evolve along natural pathways. (The same can be said about his drumming, which seems to flow as effortlessly as a stream running down a mountain, burbling, kinetic and free but precisely responsive to the demands of terrain and gravity.)
Communicating the nuances of his complex, emotional music to the quintet can present something of a challenge since Prieto’s primary instrument is percussive, not melodic or harmonic. But he’s found a way around that obstacle, and it reveals an important aspect of his music.
“Any time I have to give them an example of how I want them to solo in each part—because I’m really specific—it’s not just ‘Jump in and do whatever you want to do.’ There’s a certain language that I wanted to use in different parts of the tunes. So I have to sing that to them,” he says.
“I like to sing the ideas, even the ideas on the drums,” Prieto adds. “For me, music has to be singable. How is it going to stick in your brain if you cannot sing it?”