Jane Bunnett and Maqueque are in the final lap of an August–September tour. If they’re coming anywhere near your town, go see them. Their show at Scullers Jazz Club in Boston last night was explosive.
Bunnett, now 57, has been digging into the music of Cuba for more than 20 years. On her last visit to the island, she met singer and songwriter Daymé Arocena. In short order, Bunnett and Arocena got together with pianist Danae Olano, bassist Celia Jimenez, drummer Yissy Garcia, and percussionist Magdelys Savigne. Maqueque (roughly translated from dialect as “spirit of a young girl”) was born.
The touring band is necessarily more stripped down than on their new self-titled debut CD, but that only makes for more immediacy and punch. Jimenez, Savigne, and Garcia have a mortal lock on those complex Afro-Cuban rhythms. Garcia took several explosive solos, including the finale, and Jimenez provided melodic and harmonic lift as well as rhythmic drive. Savigne moved between congas and bata drums, and took a solo turn on the cajon, matching power with sensitivity. When she played those batas, you realized how important pitch is to the Cuban rhythm sound.
Arocena, who is one of the band’s main songwriters along with Bunnett, has a voice like a canon. Short in stature, she would stand at the mike, dancing, then open her mouth wide, lean back, and pour out a poweful contralto that evoked ancient Cuban son as well as the fluid Afropop of Angelique Kidjo. My only request of Maqueque is that they feature more Arocena. At times she was mixed as part of the ensemble with the other instruments or group vocals. Her feature on an original cha-cha-cha was one of the evening’s standouts, deep and wide.
But this whole band is a star. Olano took a bravura solo that showed off her classical chops, Bunnett was firey and lyrical, especially penetrating with her flute work. In her big solo, Olano’s mix of single-note runs and rhythmic chords at one point synched in with the band’s vamp behind her and created a big sound you could feel in your chest. That’s Maqueque — they turn the audience into a drum.