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Exploring Latin Music, In and Out of the Ivory Tower

Traditional Cuban popular music — the kind of stuff that was big in the 1940s and became big again in the late 1990s, thanks to the Buena Vista Social Club — is designed to get you out of your chair and onto the dance floor. And if you listen carefully, you’ll notice that much of the prodding comes from the piano. The groovy rhythmic figures that pianists in Cuban bands pound out are virtually irresistible.

Yet according to guitarist Benjamin Lapidus, those patterns, called montunos, originally weren’t meant for the piano at all. Instead, they were first played on a guitarlike instrument called the tres. “The tres was really the precursor to the piano in Latin music,” said Lapidus, who has spent much of the past 10 years investigating the instrument’s role in Cuban music.

Lapidus’s research took him to the Guantanamo region of Cuba, where he studied a traditional song form called changui, itself a distant ancestor of modern salsa music. It also led him to the CUNY Graduate Center, where he earned a doctorate in ethnomusicology. Unlike many music scholars, however, Lapidus practices what he preaches. After studying jazz guitar at Oberlin Conservatory, Lapidus dedicated himself to mastering the tres and yet another traditional Latin string instrument, the Puerto Rican cuatro. While he publishes the occasional scholarly article and holds adjunct teaching positions at various universities around New York, Lapidus makes the bulk of his living playing the music — or rather, the musics — that he loves. “I’m a musician whose hobby is academia,” he said in an interview with the Forward.

Lapidus’s latest recording, “Vive Jazz,” blends jazz with Cuban, Dominican and Puerto Rican music in ways that go well beyond clever. Most Latin jazz is really just salsa with a bit of jazz improvisation sprinkled on top, or else jazz with a dash of Latin flavoring. But Lapidus combines Latin music with modern jazz so effectively that it’s difficult to tell where one genre ends and the other begins. “With the group of musicians that I run with, we’re all conversant with these different things,” Lapidus said. “I hear all this stuff in my head, and I don’t think twice about mixing it all together.”

The album’s multipart title track, which dedicates entire sections to Cuban folkloric music, Latin pop and contemporary jazz, provides an illustrated tour of the multicultural musical universe that Lapidus and his bandmates inhabit. But on most selections, the musical ingredients have been blended so thoroughly that one hardly can separate them. “Dialectics of a Sopapotle,” for example, cloaks the harmonies of Charlie Parker’s bebop classic “Blues for Alice” in a traditional Puerto Rican plena, while “Tambora” borrows its rhythms from the Dominican Republic and its structure from John Coltrane’s “Impressions.” Yet in both cases, the seams and joins are so smooth that you’d need a Ph.D. yourself to find them.

The occasional reference to Jewish music is equally well disguised. Lapidus’s previous albums featured Latin arrangements of such familiar Jewish songs as “Hine Ma Tov” and “Oseh Shalom.” (The latter works especially well as a densely percussive Cuban rumba.) This time around, however, things are far less obvious. “Heebaro” may employ a vaguely Semitic scale, but it is cast in the form of a Puerto Rican jibaro (a vocal genre characterized by 10 lines of octosyllabic text). More to the point, it sounds like the kind of tune that would be more at home in a Latin dance club than in a synagogue.

Lapidus comes by his interest in jazz, Latin music and Jewish music naturally. His father, a pianist and accordionist from Brooklyn’s Canarsie area who has relatives in Mexico, Argentina and Cuba, played jazz and Latin music in the Catskills during the 1950s. Lapidus spent his teenage years on Manhattan’s Upper West Side during the 1980s, when a large and diverse Hispanic community dominated the neighborhood. He immersed himself in the local Latin music scene, and he made his first visit to Cuba in 1998. He since has returned several times, both to conduct his own research and to participate in humanitarian missions conducted by the Jewish Museum for the Jews of Havana. Currently he’s working on a project that will focus exclusively on traditional Jewish songs instead of the original compositions that have dominated his albums so far.

While his ability to bounce between styles and repertoires may make him difficult to pin down, Lapidus himself doesn’t waste time trying to categorize his work. Nor does he concern himself with elusive notions of stylistic purity — a chimera that often vexes music scholars but is ignored wisely by many professional musicians. “I don’t discriminate,” Lapidus said. “It’s either good music, or bad music.”

Alexander Gelfand is a writer living in New York.

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