In the city where Florencia Gonzalez grew up — the Uruguayan capital of Montevideo — every neighborhood has its own candombe group. These are drum outfits that might meet on a Sunday afternoon, a Wednesday night, or particular holidays, depending on neighborhood tradition. There is singing and dancing involved in candombe, but at the heart of it are those drums, which are based on three different-sized conga-like cylinders that create layers of polyrhythmic grooves. It’s one of South America’s more African-based musics, and its traditions run deepest in Montevideo’s black neighborhoods.
SOUTH OF SOUTH: Boston-resident Uruguayan Florencia Gonzalez knows her jazz, but “the stuff I bring comes from another place.”
These communal rituals are non-exclusive, explains Gonzalez, but standards are high, and each neighborhood has its own distinctive rhythms. “They’re fine if you play, but if you’re messing up, they’re like, ‘Go away! Learn how to play and come back!’ ”
Gonzalez is working hard to develop her own jazz-inflected take on candombe in Boston. That is: candombe plus murga, tango, chacarera, and other rhythms from Uruguay, Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina. Now 33, she’s been in town since 2004, when she came to study saxophone and composition at Berklee. (She graduated in 2007.) These days, you can find her at clubs like the Lily Pad, Ryles, and the Beehive, leading her small-band Candombe Project or, when the stars are aligned, a 20-piece big band. That large ensemble is where you hear the full potential of her conception — an array of colors that include French horn and violins as she marries modern jazz harmony and the occasional 12-tonish classical master to the deepest folkloric traditions of the south of South America.
Check out “Candombe Estirado” at myspace.com/florenciagonzalez. She begins by clapping the clave-like 1-2-3/1-2 core candombe rhythm; that’s soon picked up by the clack of drumstick on wood. There’s a high, dissonant fanfare of brass, noirish and menacing, a response from deep woodwinds, a floating, birdlike alto-sax interlude, and then a driving groove with tenor sax. The rhythms and the horn background intensify, breaking off into secondary and tertiary unison themes for the horns and more solos for trumpet and clarinet as the background continues to shift and build to a fanfare climax.
Gonzalez started writing because she felt that as a professional, she should know how to arrange for small groups of horns. “Then I realized that to arrange, you have to know how to compose.” She was guided by Berklee composition gurus Ken Pullig and Greg Hopkins. And Hopkins in particular, with his references to everybody from Bartók to Ellington, continues to inspire. Still, she insists, “I realized that I can write jazz, but jazz is not my music. I love jazz, and I’m here to learn it. But the stuff I bring is from another place.”
Pullig and Hopkins gave Gonzalez the bug to write for large ensembles, and that’s left her with the task of organizing rehearsals for multinational local ensembles to play original music in very specific traditions. “It’s hard finding the right players, and when I find them, I have to explain. The tango is the most difficult to explain. In the rest of the world, tango is something fine and sophisticated, but really tango is from the streets! The stories are all about prostitutes! And the music is the same way. I tell them, ‘Play more ugly!’, and they say, ‘I am playing ugly!” And I say, ‘More ugly!’ But it’s never enough!”
On a recent Wednesday night at Ryles, Gonzalez is facing the usual challenges for a musician trying to organize a last-minute gig. This event has been billed as the Candombe Project with a quintet. But the trombonist and the trumpeter have canceled. Czech pianist Jirí Nedoma is gamely filling in for regular (and fellow Uruguayan) Nando Michelin — on one rehearsal. Between sets, Gonzalez confides, “I told him, ‘You know all that stuff we did in rehearsal? Forget it, we’re not doing any of it!’ ”
But at a certain point, Nedoma locks in with percussionists Gabriel Lugo (Puerto Rico) and Alejandro Giuliani (Argentina), drummer Francisco Molina (Chile), and the superb bassist Ignacio Long (Argentina). They play a mix of Gonzalez originals and pieces by Uruguayan masters like Jaime Roos and Rubén Rada, Gonzalez combining her attractive light singing voice with her earthy, lyrical tenor playing. Her own tango — “Mujer soñando con la evasión,” based on the painting by Joan Miró — is a standout: a tango rhythm and melody twisted with modern dissonant harmonies in the manner of Astor Piazzolla, and a subdued interlude for Gonzalez’s probing tenor work. At several points during the show, she joins her percussionists, grabbing the medium-sized repique drum, which is painted green, purple, and yellow — the colors of her neighborhood.
Gonzalez’s next Big Band performances will be in the fall: October 1 at the Lily Pad, October 14 at Ryles, and October 29 at the Beehive.