When jazz drummer-composer Dafnis Prieto answered his telephone’s ring one day in October 2011 to find the director of the MacArthur Foundation on the line — informing him he’d been awarded one of the creativity fostering organization’s prestigious fellowships — he was “shocked, elated, humbled and proud all at the same time.”
Prieto was also justly rewarded. The tireless work of the 37-year-old native of Santa Clara, Cuba, has been about shattering boundaries, and his perspective is undeniably distinct.
“I believe inspiration can be found everywhere, and that a composer shouldn’t be limited to looking for ideas within the sounds of instruments,” he declares. “When I’m writing I like to take a walk, and I look and listen. I find ideas for rhythm, melody and harmony in everything I see and hear — a conversation, a construction site, traffic, the way a dog walks, a painting. Of course, you need to understand the science of how music works before you can do that, but once you do the entire world becomes a source of inspiration, and whatever you compose from that source will communicate with people in a deeper way.”
Prieto, who lives in Latin jazz hotbed New York City, has been inspired via osmosis since he was a child in Santa Clara, the provincial capital of Villa Clara in central Cuba. “I grew up in a very musical neighborhood,” he relates. “My first instrument was guitar, but everywhere — in the streets, coming out of open windows — I heard the sound of drums that captured Cuban music’s African influence. It was in the air every day.”
At age 11 he switched to the drum kit and started his jazz and classical training. By the time Prieto graduated from the National School of Music in Havana, he’d developed a virtuosic signature approach that allows him to sound like an ensemble of drummers instead of a single musician.
“My style is based on the rich polyrhythmic foundation that developed in Cuba because of the immersion of African culture there,” Prieto says. “As I gained experience I found the freedom within my playing to feel open enough to create much more within those rhythms.”
A post-grad stint with the influential Cuban group Columna B, then with pianists Carlos Maza and Ramon Valle, made him a world-touring musical ambassador — a role Prieto still plays as a sideman and with the three bands he leads. When a visa issue left him stranded in Toronto in 1999, the Big Apple and its history of jazz and Afro-Cuban music beckoned.
Since relocating to New York, Prieto has performed with a who’s who of extraordinary musicians including Henry Threadgill, Steve Coleman, Eddie Palmieri, Cucho Valdez, Roy Hargrove, Don Byron and Andrew Hill. Somehow he’s also found time to teach at New York University, tour, compose commissioned works for dance, film and chamber ensembles and make four albums as a leader. He’s also started writing a book on drums.
Each of Prieto’s albums is radically different. His solo debut, 2005’s About the Monks, features a sextet with a violin. The next year’s eponymous disc by his Absolute Quintet sports cello and organ with a guest turn by sax giant Threadgill. His sextet’s Taking the Soul for a Walk, from 2008, offers a three-piece horn section, and 2009’s sleek, edgy Live At the Jazz Standard features his Si o Si Quartet. All are on his own Dafnison label. He’s also been nominated for two Grammys, and composed the title track for Arturo O’Farril’s Grammy-winning 2008 album Song for Chico.
When we spoke Prieto was just about to catch a flight for Europe, where recording sessions were scheduled for his new Proverb Trio, featuring drums, keyboards and a hip-hop influenced vocalist.
“None of my bands play any of the same material,” he says. “I write for the group, for individual players and for the moment — not by formula. Music should always be about honest communication. If we’re going to say something pure and honest, it can’t be premeditated.”