Juan-Carlos Formell participated in a multi-artist showcase at SOB’s — home to Brazilian and Latin music in New York — a few years ago. Between a couple of amped-up bands, he took the stage alone (as I recall) and sang in Spanish, accompanying himself on guitar. His voice had urgency to it, and there was an irresistible engine inside that guitar. Ever since, I’ve wanted to hear and know more. Now, from the 2011 Monterey Jazz Festival, Juan-Carlos Formell and Johnny’s Dream Band make their JazzSet debut.
Born in 1964, Formell is a fourth-generation professional musician. His paternal great-grandfather led a brass band in Santiago de Cuba; his grandfather and father based themselves in Havana. As Formell neared 30, in Mexico playing bass as a replacement for Cachaito Lopez, he acted on his feeling that he faced marginalization in Cuba. He left the band, traveled north, swam across the Rio Grande, and eventually made his way to New York, where he knew virtually no one. Here, he has created and produced a series of five albums on his own artistic terms.
From the first CD (the Grammy-nominated Songs From a Little Blue House) through the most recent (Johnny’s Dream Club), Formell is giving us his epic masterwork of music and poetry, magical and real, about the Afro-Caribbean experience. And, lucky for JazzSet, Johnny’s Dream Club is a fabulous, swinging jazz quintet.
In 1998, Formell made his first visit to New Orleans. As he told The Times-Picayune‘s Keith Spera, “I suddenly understood that the entire Caribbean was a house, and all of its ports a door. I saw myself in a constantly shifting mosaic, able to jump from then to now and here to there, but never return, because every place is home.”
This set begins with “Ciudad / City,” an apocalyptic image of Havana since 1960 or New Orleans after Katrina, and it leads to Formell’s recasting of an old Cuban son “Lágrimas Negras” in a jazzy tempo for voice and guitar. Formell learned to play from masters of the “feeling” genre popular in Havana in the 1940s. Some say feeling in Cuba set the stage for bossa nova in Brazil.
The dramatic centerpiece is the Roberto Valero poem “Las Islas Son Malvadas,” to which Formell added “y nadie lo suspecha.” (Islands are evil and no one knows.) It expresses the anguish of living in exile. As the poet Valero writes in the last stanza, “When you have put the sea between two lives, don’t go back; you won’t be able to find what you lost.” Maximizing the tension, Formell sets it to upbeat music, and Lewis Kahn and Harvey Wainapel take fine solos on violin and clarinet, respectively. Savor the contradictions — they’re part of the message.
Thanks to Formell’s manager and wife Dita Sullivan for translations and context. Recording by Paul Cain. Our Surround Sound mix is by Duke Markos. The original set is available in NPR Music’s coverage of the 54th Monterey Jazz Festival, as produced and blogged by Patrick Jarenwattananon.