Rising star Pedrito Martinez brings his red-hot band to the Bay Area
In these polarized times, when everything from marriage and immigration to health care and gentrification sends people racing to the barricades, what can possibly bring us all together? The answer just might be a charismatic Cuban percussionist-vocalist named Pedrito Martinez, who’s forged a rhythmically astounding group sound steeped in Afro-Cuban dance grooves as well as R&B, blues, flamenco and jazz.
Since launching his quartet at Guantanamera, a popular Cuban restaurant in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen, Martinez has unified the fractious New York music scene by earning universal acclaim. Quincy Jones and Eric Clapton are devoted fans. Traditionalist Wynton Marsalis has jumped on the Martinez Band bandwagon, as has groove maestro John Scofield, who declared, “They are one of the greatest groups playing today.”
Steve Gadd, the legendary studio drummer who has recorded with an eye-popping array of pop, rock and jazz greats, was so smitten with the group that he produced the band’s debut studio album, “The Pedrito Martinez Group” (Motéma Music), with Martinez.
"I first heard them at Guantanamera, and they were incredible," said Gadd after his band’s sold out performance at Yoshi’s last week. "That level of musicianship is a joy to be around. I always love to hear the band. It just keeps on evolving. Pedrito is a true master."
With the October release of the Motéma album, word about the band is spreading faster than ever. Martinez performs Sunday at the SF Jazz Center and Monday at Kuumbwa with his quartet, a joyously virtuosic ensemble featuring Cuban pianist and vocalist Ariacne Trujillo, Venezuelan electric bassist Alvaro Benavides, and Peruvian-born, New York-raised percussionist Jhair Sala.
The band didn’t come together quickly. The management at Guantanamera hired Martinez about seven years ago, and at first he used a revolving cast of players. The present lineup slowly took shape after about two years “and then we started getting really tight,” says Martinez, 40, who had spent his first decade in New York in a whirlwind of activity, recording on dozens of albums and accompanying artists such as Eddie Palmieri, Steve Turre, Stefon Harris, Meshell Ndegeocello, Eliane Elias, Isaac Delgado, and Cassandra Wilson.
"People started making noise about the group, spreading the word," Martinez says. "At that point, I was getting tired of being a sideman and wanted to do my own thing. I thought, I’m going to pay attention to this group now, and really started pulling the music together."
Rather than racing into the studio, Martinez let the wave build. The band’s jaw-dropping Guantanamera performances led to a series of high-profile gigs at European festivals. And its illustrious fan base turned its weekly gig into a New York institution. By the time Motéma came knocking, he was ready to make a bold statement.
"Wynton would come to the club every time," Martinez says. "John Scofield and Quincy Jones love the band. I was not desperate to make a record. I knew we had a tornado in our hands."
More than a virtuoso percussionist, Martinez is also a commanding vocalist who is equally equipped to lead a hard-hitting timba band, a rumba circle, or a Santería ritual. What makes him so innovative is that he’s created a sound that references numerous other styles, even summoning the emotionally unfettered strains of flamenco — in March he released the Sony Masterworks album “Rumba De La Isla,” a Cubanized tribute to flamenco legend Camaron de la Isla.
Martinez is part of an extraordinary wave of Cuban players who landed in New York at about the same time. In fact, Martinez, altoist Yosvany Terry and drummer Dafnis Prieto all left Cuba in 1998 with Canadian soprano saxophonist Jane Bunnett, who has recruited numerous outstanding Cuban musicians over the past two decades. By 2000, Martinez had settled in New York for good. He’s not particularly interested in politics, but his disdain for the system he left behind is clear, as is his gratitude for the tremendous opportunities he’s found in New York.
"As you know, Cuba is a country very rich in music, but the political and financial situation is terrible," Martinez says. "You aren’t free to express yourself as a musician. I left to be able to learn different things, to be able to add more knowledge to what I already have. In New York, I’ve been able to check a lot of music, Brazilian groups, jazz groups, and all kinds of Latin music, not just reggaeton. I took advantage of all of that."
Contact Andrew Gilbert at firstname.lastname@example.org.
PEDRITO MARTINEZ GROUP
When & where: 7 p.m.
Sunday; SFJazz Center,
San Francisco; $25-$45, 866-920-5299,
7 p.m. Monday; Kuumbwa Jazz Center, Santa Cruz; $25-$28; 831-427-2227,www.kuumbwajazz.org.