When the heavyweight jazz band Ninety Miles takes the Vanderhoef Studio stage at the Mondavi Center next week, the performances will be the continuation of several noble experiments.
The creation of a cooperative band with several high-profile leaders, the use of that band for political detente, and the fruitful exploration of the musical meldings that has informed jazz since its beginnings are all parts of the Ninety Miles story.
Ninety Miles represents the distance between the southern most edge of Florida and northern most tip of Cuba. The expanse symbolizes both a physical divide as well as a philosophical separation that artists as much as politicians continually attempt to bridge.
The Ninety Miles project is one of the more visible endeavors to try to span that gap. The "Ninety Miles" album was recorded in Miami and Havana, Cuba, where the project, the brainchild of Concord Music Group Vice President John Burk, first came together in 2010.
Burk wanted to create a collaborative cultural exchange with players who didn't yet know one another. It took him a year to get all the paperwork processed so three musicians vibraphone and marimba virtuoso Stefon Harris, tenor saxophonist David Sánchez and trumpeter Christian Scott could travel from New York City to Havana. There they spent a week rehearsing and recording with the young bands of pianists Rember Duharte and Harold López-Nussa, creating their version of dense, angular, modernist jazz.
"This is not so much Latin jazz as it is straight-ahead modern music with Latin rhythmic influences," said Gary Vercelli, jazz music director at Sacramento's Capital Public Radio.
"David Sánchez towers above most of today's tenor players, and Stefon Harris plays with a firm grasp of tradition, but also with a unique modern spirit," Vercelli said.
Nicholas Payton has replaced Scott for the current Ninety Miles tour, and that could be considered a bonanza by most listeners. The touring band also includes the heady company of Venezuelan pianist Edward Simon and Puerto Rican drummer Henry Cole, making the ensemble one of the strongest on the road anywhere.
Cooperative bands are not new in jazz, but usually there is just one person in charge to allow the decision-making to be more efficient (if not necessarily democratic). Harris, Sánchez and Payton are all well-known leaders of their own bands and are used to calling the shots, but they all also have similar cooperative experience.
Harris and Sánchez are current members of the SFJAZZ Collective, the resident band of the SFJAZZ Festival. Payton was an original member of the Collective and Simon now holds the piano chair in the group, so all are versed in group dynamics.
The sound of Ninety Miles is the melding of mainstream jazz and the rhythmic drive of Cuban-based improvisational music.
The Puerto Rican-born Sánchez has been straddling the Caribbean-American mix since he began playing music. Coming to the States as a teenager in 1986, Sánchez enrolled at Rutgers University to study music, but was soon touring with Dizzy Gillespie, which essentially put him at ground zero of the Cuban-American cross-pollination experiment.
Bebop progenitor Gillespie was playing and recording with Cuban musicians in the '40s and did so through his career (he passed away in 1993). Though Sánchez continually delves into his Puerto Rican roots musically, he also tours with modernist Pat Metheny and plays at tributes to traditionalist Stan Getz.
Harris has recorded suites written by Duke Ellington and sometimes leads a band with an electric contemporary edge, but his percussive, soulful compositions and arrangements give the group the expansive range it needs. His tune "Brown Belle Blues" provides a steady groove for the young rhythm section that includes Cole, Ricky Rodriguez on bass and Mauricio Hererra on percussion.
Sánchez compositions such as "City Sunrise" and "Forgotten Ones" come out of the saxophonist's studies of African-based tribal rhythms.
In a documentary film about the Havana trip, Harris said, "Human beings are so much bigger than culture. Once you get past the superficial level of it, we really are all the same. To be able to go into a country like Cuba and see it in its current state where things are unfolding and developing, it's really special."
Whether Ninety Miles can thaw the chill between Cuba and the United States remains to be seen, but this band will certainly bring together anyone interested in compelling progressive jazz.
What: Jazz band featuring Stefon Harris, David Sánchez and Nicholas Payton
Where: The Mondavi Center, Vanderhoef Studio Cabaret Stage, UC Davis
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday through Jan. 12
Tickets: $38-$42 general, $19-$21 students
Information: (866) 754-2787; www.mondaviarts.org