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ISSUE 117 VOL 7 PUBLISHED 11/7/2003

Herrera lights up the Pause

By Carl Schroeder
Staff Writer

Friday, November 7, 2003

Local Cuban-born pianist Nachito Herrera and his band, Puro Cubano, paid a visit to St. Olaf last Thursday, performing a concert rich with diverse music in the Lion’s Pause for a small but appreciative crowd. During the 90-minute performance, the talented Herrera dazzled the audience with numerous extended piano solos, racing up and down the keys and making use of two nearby synthesizers.

Herrera, 37, described Puro Cubano as "an experiment around Cuban music," melding influences from a variety of diverse traditions. The end result is a uniquely modern sound with solid roots in North American jazz harmonies and catchy Afro-Cuban rhythms. During Thursday’s show, the four-member band performed a mix of original songs and jazz standards. The band was joined late in the concert by Herrera’s 15-year-old daughter, Migueles Herrera, who provided vocals for the concluding numbers.

It’s hard to top Star Tribune writer Tom Surowicz’s description of Nachito Herrera: "Cuba’s finest legal export." How exactly, then, did one of North America’s rising piano stars end up settling in Minnesota?

Herrera’s first visit to the state occurred in the late 1990’s, while he was touring internationally with the band Cubanismo. After separating from that group, Herrera was invited back to the Twin Cities for a series of master classes at area schools, where he developed a strong attachment to the local community. "I love the people of Minnesota," said Herrera. "They told me, ‘Don’t go away; stay in Minnesota.’ "

So Herrera stayed, having been awarded a special work visa through the Dakota Bar & Grill, a Twin Cities jazz venue. For several months Herrera served as the bandleader of local salsa ensemble Sabor Tropical before eventually forming Puro Cubano in 2001. The following year, Herrera’s "experiment around Cuban music" became the first band featured on the "Live at the Dakota" CD series. Puro Cubano’s current roster includes Herrera on piano, composer/performer Terry Burns on bass, the energetic Gordy Knudtson on drum set and Shai Hayo on congas and auxiliary percussion. During their performance at the Pause, all four performers were given ample opportunities to show off their strong musicianship through improvised solos scattered throughout the show.

Migueles also seemed to enjoy the occasion, delivering her Spanish lyrics with an enthusiastic depth and dancing between verses. During the opening of one understated number by bassist Burns, most of Puro Cubano left the stage, leaving Migueles and the elder Herrera to perform a father-daughter duet.

In spite of the distance from the rest of his family in Cuba and recent cuts in arts spending, Herrera remains optimistic and says he intends to stay in Minnesota. "Everything is beautiful in my life," said Herrera. "I don’t care how many people come [to my shows], just that good people come out."

As Herrera’s cutting-edge experiment continues, it’s a safe bet that good people will come out in large numbers to hear the musical evolution of a Cuban-born pianist with heart, soul and talent to spare.

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