By Geo Gomez
Met with widespread acclaim as fresh new voices on the jazz scene, an interesting new form of jazz came to Grinnell Thursday in the form of Ninety Miles. A three-piece Cuban-American jazz ensemble, Ninety Miles incorporates Afro-Cuban jazz into their sound.
Featuring Stefon Harris on vibes, Nicholas Payton on trumpet and David Sanchez on saxophone, Ninety Miles’ sound is impressive and rings true in the tradition of jazz, while their talent and innovation are clearly expressed.
As Harris begins to play, he also vocalizes, immersing himself in the music. Striking each bar with a quick rap and just as quickly fluttering to the next bar like a game of hot potato, Harris’ hands fly over the metallophone, gathering more and more momentum, pouring it back into the performance.
“He swings; and when he plays, he makes you feel good,” according to The New York Times.
Improvising, Harris condenses his playing, hitting each note as if he’s tracing the path to where his music is leading. Nearly as soon as he begins, he’s got it. The rest of the band joins in—drums, saxophone, bass, piano—as if they’ve known the melody all along.
Rachel Bly, Public Events Committee Ex Officio, thought Ninety Miles went beyond the usual jazz contribution to the Public Events Series.
“With this band, we saw a chance to bring three musicians who are coming together to do a project that’s really unique,” Bly said. “They recorded in Cuba after going all over and meeting local traditions in order to understand the Cuban musical tradition.”
During their travels, Ninety Miles documented their trip, showcasing a rich Cuban blend of music and communities. The band explored what jazz means to the Cuban people, and even how they can relate.
“Even though they’re going through hard times, the music makes them feel like it’s gonna be okay,” said Christian Scott, Ninety Miles’ saxophonist. “When people start playing music—damn this reminds me of New Orleans! It’s a catharsis for the entire community.”
Ninety Miles has reached out to understand how people in another part of the globe feel about and play jazz music, and as people and performers, they’re all the richer for it. This innovating outreach to the jazz community invests the band with the kind of performance that only exposure to another culture’s music and people can grant.
“They… stayed with local musicians to really understand [Cuban jazz], then made it their own,” Bly said. “They took shades of what they’d heard, combined it with the jazz they’re so famous for, and created something very different and special. It has blends of Cuban music, but it’s still in their style of jazz.”
The Public Events Series not only brings prominent musicians to Grinnellians for entertainment, but to provide opportunities for students to learn from these performers.
“The three lead players are actually going to lead a jazz master class with students on Friday morning,” Bly said. “Students of Damani Phillips in the jazz band will be able to play for these guys, get feedback and dialogue with the musicians. They’ll get to learn what life as a musician is like and how they can explore that.”
With their one-of-a-kind jazz style, Ninety Miles gave Grinnellians a great show of Cuban influences and rich jazz music.