This past April 6, the Cuban-born drummer, educator, and bandleader Dafnis Prieto released his sixth record as a leader, Back to the Sunset. With help from the album’s producer, Eric Oberstein, Prieto gathered a seventeen-piece big band—along with special guests Brian Lynch on trumpet, Henry Threadgill on alto sax, and Steve Coleman on alto sax—to blaze through the drummer’s fervent Afro-Cuban-infused jazz compositions. Throughout the effort, Prieto’s signature polyrhythmic independence shines as he deceptively builds a mountain of sound behind a comparatively modest four-piece kit.

The drummer, who became a MacArthur Foundation Fellow in 2011, devoted an entire year to composing and arranging this latest release. “Some songs,” he says, “are completely new, and others were previously written for my other projects, and I rearranged them for the big band setting.”

Although Prieto dedicates each song on Back to the Sunset to a musical hero who’s inspired him—such as Tito Puente, Michel Camilo, and Andrew Hill—he says, “I draw inspiration from many sources. It could be emotional, intellectual, scientific, or simply musical, and the process of composing changes from one song to another. But the general inspiration for this album comes from my desire to do something bigger for the musicians who have influenced and inspired me throughout my career, and to express my gratitude toward them.”

On “Out of the Bone,” Prieto showcases his prolific chops, rhythmic independence, and overall sensitivity with a fiery solo starting at 4:46. But he insists that there’s no difference between his thought process during a solo or while playing an entire composition. “Every solo and song has its own unique characteristic and attitude,” Prieto explains, “and I like using different approaches. I generally sing the ideas I want to play. That way it’s clearer to me when I play them. I follow my musical intuition, let myself go with the story, and play whatever I feel the music needs at that moment. That particular solo is at a relatively fast tempo with a complex, syncopated background—no one plays on the downbeats. In this case, you need to be very focused or you’ll fall off the throne. When you’re really improvising, you’re creating a story within the music that requires a great deal of concentration and energy. There are other kinds of solos that might be more spacious or relaxing, but they still need concentration to develop their story.”

Prieto creates a rhythmic illusion at 6:29 in “Una Vez Más” by displacing a percussion break and intricate cowbell pattern to the second 16th note after the downbeat. He packs moments such as these into Back to the Sunset and credits his cultural background for his ability to handle these complex passages. “Coming from Cuba and having been exposed to a powerful rhythmic vocabulary helped me understand syncopation and polyrhythms,” he says. “You can easily hear these rhythmic characteristics in many popular Cuban styles, such as rumba or carnival music. And of course there was a strong influence of African music, which is heavily based on layering syncopated rhythms. On a technical level, polyrhythm means rhythmic independence. So to play different rhythmic layers simultaneously, you’ll need to have decent independence.”

Prieto also offers advice on developing your own voice on the kit. “I believe there’s a unique sound in each of us, and that sound is the sincerest sound that you can play,” he says. “But it needs to be identified and nurtured by the player. It also has to do a lot with personality, intuition, musical background, technique, and so forth.”

Dafnis Prieto plays Yamaha drums, Sabian cymbals, and LP percussion, and he uses Evans heads and Vic Firth sticks.

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