“You don’t have to go with a tux to classical places,” Nachito Herrera, attired in a plain white T, suspenders, dress pants and stylish two-tone shoes, explained Monday night at the Dakota Jazz Club. “I’ve been trying to prove music is one [and the same for everybody]. There are only two kinds of music – good and bad.”
The Cuban-American pianist/bandleader, who lives in White Bear Lake, had just finished leading his new group, the Universals, through two intense, frenetic 20-minute instrumentals. He paused to take a breath before bursting into another Latin groove and taking off at 100 mph.
This night was an extra-special night for Herrera. Not only was this the debut of his new band of world-class musicians but it was also the day on which the Cuban Embassy was opening in Washington D.C. after 56 years of chilly relations and he had to turn down an invitation to attend and perform there because he felt an obligation to the Dakota and his new musicians.
And to add icing to the cake, it was also the birthday of Tony Oliva, the Twins baseball great from Cuba and a friend of Herrera’s. Of course, the pianist broke into an unplanned version of “Happy Birthday,” after which violinist Karen Briggs added the “and many more” part on her instrument.
Herrera dazzles in so many ways. The pianist effortlessly mixes styles, going from Afro-Cuban jazz to classical (he played a little Bach) to “God Bless America,” a spontaneous instrumental that was somewhere between Ray Charles and Kate Smith with Latin seasoning.
Herrera, who plays regularly at the Dakota with Minnesota musicians, never lets you forget that the piano is a percussive instrument. He pounded away so fast and furiously that you thought you were experiencing RSI. But he does it with such intent, style and passion that you get swept away.
For the Universals, he has found simpatico players, who took off on an adventurous solo whenever he pointed to them but they always found their way back to the melodies of such selections as “Gravity” and “Below Level.”
Like Herrera, Briggs showed a remarkable ability to seamlessly segue from one style to the next, sounding classical one moment and gypsy jazz the next. Her many years with Yanni helped prepare her for many different sounds.
Saxophonist Mike Phillips, who has worked with Prince and Stevie Wonder among others, brought straight-ahead jazz and funk (with a taste of Zapp, even) to the proceedings. On one piece, he played an ewi (it’s an electronic wind instrument) through a voice box, which allowed him to scat sing with an intriguing texture that recalled Peter Frampton’s voice-box/guitar effects.
The rhythm section of Cuban drummer Raul Pineda, now living in California, and Senegal bassist Cheikh Ndoye was attentive and supportive, and both players were compelling on their solos of varying durations.
The smiles and fist bumps exchanged by the musicians -- who had rehearsed at afternoon soundcheck -- suggested that they were as happy with the performances as the clubgoers were.
After an exhilarating and exhausting 1 hour and 50 minutes of instrumental excellence, Herrera asked the fans giving him a standing ovation if they wanted to dance. So he invited his daughter, Mirdalys, to the stage to sing “Guantanamera.” It was a festive if less than polished capper to an emotional night for Herrera, his bandmates and fellow Cubans.
Herrera and the Universals will perform again Tuesday at the Dakota at 7 p.m.