BY JOHN FLEMING
Times Performing Arts Critic
Wynton Marsalis was hoping he might have some time to visit Ybor City when he's in Tampa this weekend with his Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.
The great trumpeter was not acquainted with the old cigar factory district and its historic ties with Cuba, which Marsalis and his New York-based orchestra visited on a cultural exchange, not unlike what the Florida Orchestra is doing with classical music institutions in the island nation.
"For me, being from New Orleans, being in Havana felt a lot like being in a New Orleans neighborhood," Marsalis said from a tour stop in Kentucky. "Havana and New Orleans always had a deep musical, a deep familial connection between the two cities."
The 15-piece orchestra is in Florida this week and plays Saturday night at the Straz Center, with a program that will include quite a lot of Marsalis' own works, such as selections from the albums Congo Square, Blood on the Fields (the first jazz composition to win the Pulitzer Prize in music) and Vitoria Suite. And it's certainly conceivable that the group could fit in some Afro-Cuban jazz as well.
"There is such a strong Cuban musical connection with Jazz at Lincoln Center," Marsalis said. "There have been so many great Cuban jazz musicians, like Felix Chappottin, the trumpet player and band leader. (Pianist) Chucho Valdes was always part of our organization. When we went to Cuba, we brought a program of Afro-Cuban music, like Chico O'Farrill's Afro-Cuban Suite."
Marsalis and his orchestra played a series of concerts in Havana in 2010, becoming one of the first cultural institutions to take advantage of loosened U.S.-Cuba restrictions under the Obama administration. American Ballet Theater also performed there that year. Last September, a wind quintet from the Florida Orchestra gave a concert in Havana.
Last year, members of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, led by bassist Carlos Henriquez, were in Cuba again with a project called "Horns for Havana" to distribute a planeload of instruments to students.
Marsalis has been careful to keep politics out of the Cuba visits, but he has gotten some negative feedback. "One of the musicians I respect and love the most in the world is Paquito D'Rivera," he said of the Cuban-born saxophonist and composer, who has lived in the United States since the early 1980s. "We've talked about it, and we have a difference of opinion. And I defer to him. It's his homeland; he has skin in the game. It's a very touchy subject, and I'm respectful about it."
John Fleming can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716.