Keyboard player Alex Chadsey was fluent in jazz and classical forms. He’d walked the usual, rigorous path of a conservatory-style music education. Then he wound up in Seattle, University of Michigan music degree in hand, not sure of what to do. The answer: Play in salsa bands, perfect his montuno, ...
Once long ago, there were no continents, nothing to divide the great mass of land. Seattle-based trio Duende Libre’s tender, clever songs explore this notion, charting the imaginary folds and roads of Pangea, the ebb and flow of the world’s sounds.
Guided by founder and bandleader, pianist Alex Chadsey, Duende Libre prove that what drifted apart can drift back together, and that musical traditions are living things and therefore constantly in flux. The Puget Sound and the Bosphorus, Cuba and Jamaica overlap and inform one another in pieces that wed jazz concepts with pop pleasures on Drift (release June 15, 2018; release celebration: June 29, 2018), the group’s second album.
“We draw influences from many different cultures and countries and parts of the world, and the album’s title is a tribute and invocation of these influences,” explains Chadsey. “We explored using different rhythmic feels and styles as a way to meld those sensibilities. That’s what I was going for: a musical pangea where borders become less rigid, and where surprising new sounds emerge in the grey areas between traditions.”
Chadsey comes by his global influences honestly. Growing up with an ear for music from around the world, Chadsey developed a lifelong passion for Western classical and jazz, including pieces like Chick Corea’s “Spain,” covered artfully on the album by the trio joined by vocalist Chava Mirel. Chadsey applied his classical and jazz training to Latin music as a member of the GRAMMY-winning Quetzal and as a core player in roots reggae legend Clinton Fearon’s Boogie Brown Band. Chadsey drew on these experiences and a lifetime of curious listening as he embarked on his own project, tapping fellow open-eared Seattle musicians bassist Farko Dosumov and drummer Jeff “Bongo” Busch to create an original sound that Jazziz called “a strikingly authentic blend, one that has marked their city as an epicenter for musicians who share an appetite for bridging worlds.”
They take full advantage of Seattle’s wealth of global musical talents. “Choro,” a piece a few degrees removed from the Brazilian style, pays homage to Jovino Santos Neto, a master pianist and composer whose work guided Chadsey. The grooving “Kiki” tips the hat to the Cuban son of Cuban cuatro virtuoso Kiki Valera Alarcon and La Familia Valera Miranda, his family’s long-standing band. Valera invited Duende Libre to join him for a collaborative concert, part of a larger series he was curating. “We did one gig together and I was so inspired by that encounter,” recalls Chadsey. “I wrote the piece for him. We are drawing on clave, but trying to do something different. I wanted to know what would happen if I took traditional figures and chord progressions from Cuban son, which is usually in four, and experimented with changing meters. It creates a whole different feel and has been a fun challenge for us to play.”
Duende Libre’s debut album sparked an extensive round of touring, taking them from their hometown and as far afield as Alaska. They spent long hours on the road together between gigs. The downtime had a musical upside, as the group became more integrated and tighter. “It’s osmosis,” notes Chadsey. “You’re just hanging out together more than you’re actually playing. You’re sitting in the bus, hanging out with the people you meet. Time spent together on the road impacts the music in interesting and surprising ways.”
New directions coalesced for Duende Libre, and they took advantage of the momentum to jump into the studio, resulting in Drift. They invited friend and fellow Clinton Fearon bandmate, singer and songwriter Mirel to join them, adding her voice’s lilting strength to several tracks including the ethereal “Zephyr.” Busch and Chadsey put their heads together to shape the rhythmic push and pull of the title track, “Drift,” which contrasts various nuances of the pulse and the swing, the juxtaposition of triple and duple meter that is so integral to African diasporic musics. Dosumov also contributed a piece to the album, the bouncy, gritty “Subway.” “We are starting to have musical convos as a trio, or quartet when Chava joins us,” says Chadsey. “To do that spontaneously is one of the goals of any jazz artist, to be creating musical communion.”
This communion has grown out of productive tensions between Chadsey, who loves to engage with pop song forms and hooks, and the other members of the trio, in particular Busch, who wants to open things up and push the boundaries. In the end, Duende Libre strikes the balance between ear candy and experimentation.
“When I’m writing a tune, I intentionally try to strive for something as melodic as possible. But I’m not too attached to how the songs are arranged,” Chadsey says. “When I bring them into the band, they go through different iterations, experimenting with forms. Jeff has great arrangement ideas, in particular, and he and I often agree to disagree. That’s the beauty of any relationship, the opportunity to step out of your bubble. That’s where growth happens.”
By exploring new territory where heritage, influence, and style can meet, Duende Libre reenforce, in their own nuanced way within the jazz tradition, the ties that bind our world, sonic and otherwise. “Everyone in the project really understands and values music as a sacred way of connecting people across lines of difference,” states Chadsey. “The imperative to connect has never been more important than it is now, and music will keep us healthy and sane through these turbulent times.”