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In His Own Words: Dafnis Prieto

dafnis prieto

With Proverb Trio, Cuban wunderkind, MacArthur Genius Grant recipient, and part-time NYU faculty member Dafnis Prieto has taken the idea of improvisational music to a whole other level. Talk about a leap of faith: Prieto and creative partners Kokayi (vocals) and Jason Lindner (keys) had no road map, shared idea, or basic outline before heading into the studio to lay down this 12-track gem. We caught up with the preternaturally talented 38-year-old at home in New York where he talked about the thrill of recording “blind,” his upcoming book, and the challenge of drumming in the Big Apple.

From jam session to completed work

We did the recording in one day, doing both long takes and short takes. The first part of the recording I wanted to be more open to the possibility of doing long tracks, so that we can pick some excerpts from it. And then, the second part of the recording, we did smaller takes in order to be more concise with other ideas that came to our minds. After all that was recorded, I sat back and listened to the four hours of music that we had recorded in total and picked the ones I felt most appealing for this album.

Improvisation versus full-on spontaneity

This idea is relatively new … it’s based on extemporaneous composition, and by that I mean raising the level of communication between the musicians. The idea is to improvise, obviously, but at the conceptual and compositional level within that improvisation. So we don’t have any preconceived ideas [before playing], but we know eventually that we are going to connect even if not exactly how we will do that. The idea is to really jump out of space and time and see what happens.

The idea of improv versus actual results

It came out really close to what we were looking for – the surprise quality of it is the beauty of it because when you play like this it’s very hard to remember what you just played, and I was thrilled. I’m very happy with the way it came out.

Starting over … and over … and over

We are actually developing very deeply the live aspect because next week we’re going to the North Sea Jazz Festival. We have been playing together for three years in Europe and also the U.S. so all the material is going to be completely new every time. There is an action and a reaction and on some days you will react to things differently. I’m not thinking if something is going to come out relatively close to what we have done; I’m thinking about the moment and enjoying what the music means to me at that particular moment.

What it’s like to be a genius

You feel a certain responsibility because you have been selected to represent people who are working creatively or doing creative things with their work, so it’s two sided because you have the pressure but also the relief that comes with [the prize money]. I say “relief” because now I can really concentrate on what I want to do in my creative, personal work. I will have the time to really dig in with what I want to do artistically with music.

A work in progress

Right now I am finishing editing a book that I just wrote on drumming. It’s not only an instruction book, it’s almost like a love story I have with the drums. There is instruction with the music notations, like how certain things in the drumming vocabulary take on a life of their own, but also a lot of analysis and reflection with no music notations. It also contains [notated] works from other drummers that I personalized. So there are a lot of things in one package. I’m excited and working intensely to make sure that by next year the book is out.

Teacher versus artist

I do enjoy teaching [in the university setting]. That’s one of the reasons I did the book. But I also like to do clinics and teach that way. I have a strong belief that teaching is something that’s always evolving and not staying in one place. We are the ones that are labeling things as ’tradition,’ ’contemporary,’ etc. – it’s all a tradition, it’s just that we have to work to take it somewhere. The reason teaching is not a contradiction with creativity is because I imply creativity in my act of teaching. [laughs]

The hazards of being a Manhattan musician

At home I just play with the pads, not the regular drum set. Here [in the city] you have to have focus and adjustment. I would love to have a room to play in but I don’t. So I have to adjust to avoid all the complaining from the neighbors. And the other thing, focus, is necessary because there are a lot of distractions here and you can get lost in all of that while you are looking for your musical path. Sometime it takes time to do that, to focus on your own path and not feel the pressure to do things you don’t like and do only the kind of music you really care about.

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