In Spanish the word cruzao loosely means "the crossing" - and CRUZAO
bandleader Nick Ali has certainly crossed major bridges with the
Latin jazz funk group he formed only last year.
Originally dubbed Shades of Brown, since Ali's nickname in the music biz is Brownman, CRUZAO garnered headlines earlier this month by scooping the Grand Prix de Jazz award as best new Canadian jazz act in front of 35,000 at the Montreal jazz festival. It beat nine other contestants, including TASA and bassist Andrew Downing's quartet from Toronto plus a bevy of bands from Quebec.
The prize includes $8,000 in cash, appearances at next year's Montreal and Rimouski festivals and 50 hours of studio recording time, which in all likelihood means a CD release on the Justin Time label. Since the band has a five-tune CD out - a quirky, invigorating session that seethes with energy and particularly shows off the skills of trumpeter Ali and his brother Marcus on alto sax above throbbing percussion - the new recording will likely expand this to 11 tunes.
Says Ali of the big win: "It's unbelievable, staggering. We're the first Latin band to win this award and as well all the music was original." The prize was established in 1982.
Ali, 31, was born in Trinidad but came to Canada at an early age. He was destined for a career in math and science, his professor parents hoped, but wanted to play the trumpet from Grade 8, ever since he heard legendary hornman Freddie Hubbard.
BRASS ACT: Trumpeter Nick "Brownman" Ali fronts Latin-jazz-funk band CRUZAO
He graduated in physics from the University of Waterloo, but playing trumpet
has come first for a long time. He studied locally with Guido Basso
and Mike Malone, and in New York with Randy Brecker before
returning to Toronto in 1996 to full-time work in music.
Explaining CRUZAO's distinctive style, Ali says it results from his fascination with chordless groups (without piano or guitar), which are not particularly dominant in Latin music.
"This has not been explored in Latin America, but our format means we can combine jazz harmonies with Latin rhythms, and we get into funk grooves too. There's a high level of musicianship, and the sounds we make are palatable to youth, which is important. There's also a subversive feeling to this stuff.
"You have to keep an open mind. The world is getting smaller, and to have a modern appeal, you have to take the tradition and do something different with it. There's a lot of give and take in this band, and I have lots of specific ideas as to where we're going. I think I'm hitting my stride as a composer, and I've been more consistent over the past two years."
The other members of CRUZAO are Chendy Leon from Cuba on timbales and drums, Luis Orbegoso from Peru on congas and Paco Luviano from Mexico on electric bass.
If he ever gets bored with CRUZAO, there's plenty to occupy Ali. As a leader
he's boss of MARRÓN
MATIZADO, a band playing "hard salsa;" the NICK
ALI TRIO, in which he plays with bass and drums; and Brownman
a jazz hip-hop combo, which reharmonizes and modernizes standards from
the 1940s and '50s and features improvising rapper MC Enlight. In
addition, he's musical director for two Cuban outfits,
Evaristo y Su
Orquesta and Yaritza Martinez.
As a sideman he's frantically busy. He's appeared with jazzers ranging from Kenny Wheeler to Don Thompson and in many other music modes - with Rita di Ghent, the Philosopher Kings, Juke Joint, Tabarruk, a host of Latin groups as well as acid jazz, funk, hip-hop and r'n'b bands. You can hear him as sideman on 90-plus albums and his trumpet in the movie Angel Eyes featuring Jennifer Lopez.
Ali insists he's still a jazzman at heart.
"I really believe
in Toronto's jazz community. It's a world-class situation here that needs
to be noticed more. At the same time Toronto is so much more multicultural,
so we can approach this great music from different vantage points."
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