It wasn't his beloved Cuba, but Ignacio (Nachito) Herrera nonetheless sounded extra happy talking by phone last week from Santa Fe, N.M. The Twin Cities-based jazz pianist was back under the warm sun -- and back in the international spotlight -- on a tour with the Afro-Cuban All Stars.
"It was 98 degrees in Arizona the other day, and I loved it," bragged Herrera, who returns to town Sunday when the All-Stars perform at Orchestra Hall.
"I am looking forward to coming home, because I am so proud to play with these guys. I don't care what the weather is like."
A Cuban expatriate, Herrera relocated to Minnesota in 2001 and hasn't looked back, he says. He made his mark in the local jazz and Latino/Caribbean music scenes soon after his arrival, both as a performer (his own group regularly headlines the Dakota and other clubs) and as an instructor (at MacPhail Center for Music).
Even with his roots firmly replanted in Minnesota, Herrera said he jumped at the chance to hit the road again with the All-Stars, many of whom he knew and played with while he still lived in Cuba. The All-Stars' bandleader, Juan de Marcos Gonzales -- also a star of the Buena Vista Social Club -- tracked him down last year to join his 14-member ensemble, started in 1997.
Gonzales has been "one of the strongest promoters of Cuban music internationally, so it was an honor to be called," said Herrera, who hasn't toured with a large ensemble since he was in the band Cubanismo a decade ago. "It was easy to adjust to the tour, because I knew these guys personally and professionally. I knew everyone on the tour was an excellent, hard-working musician. It's a completely professional situation."
The outing has mostly stopped at large music halls, which has been a mixed blessing from Herrera's point of view. "It's great to bring Cuban music back to the big stages," he said. "There are usually 2,500 people each night, and the applause is very big. The problem is, most Cuban music is made for one reason: to dance. People cannot get up and dance at these venues, but [Gonzales] usually tells them to get up near the end."
Herrera hopes to continue performing with the All-Stars after their tour ends in Miami on April 11. However, he will be doing plenty of traveling on his own in the meantime. He has dates booked at jazz fests in Thailand and Hong Kong in June. He also has his usual wide mix of hometown shows planned, including an April 19 concert with the Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra at Edina High School (a benefit for Fairview Hospital's hospice and home-care program).
"No matter where I'm playing, or with whom, I want to bring Cuban music to people outside of Cuba and teach them to love it," Herrera said.
Chris Riemenschneider • 612-673-4658