Blu Notes: “Subrosa’s Soft Launch Hits Hard”

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Manhattan: Subrosa’s Soft Launch Hits Hard

By Larry Blumenfeld
November 14, 2014

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The bad news: If you’ve never caught the Cuban percussionist Pedrito Martinez leading his quartet at the midtown Manhattan restaurant Guantanamera, where he held court for nearly a decade, you never will.

“At first we played traditional Cuban songs, but then we decided 
to just play what we love and let people get used to it,” Martinez told me for this feature story I wrote about him in 2012.

People got used to it—enough so that the gig became a scene, drawing players from all walks of music, from Wynton Marsalis to Eric Clapton.

But that gig is done.

The good news: Martinez’s residency lives on—now transplanted to Subrosa, a new venue in Manhattan’s newly fashionable meatpacking district. Subrosa is owned and operated by the Blue Note Entertainment Group, a company anchored by its namesake Greenwich Village jazz club. The new club, which seats 120, feels intimate without seeming cramped, elegant yet not slicked-up: white-painted brick walls and cafe tables give way to a horseshoe-shaped bar in the rear.

By now, Martinez’s mesmerizing talents as singer and percussionist have made him as potent a force on New York’s music scene as there has been in many years, sparking new attention to and possibilities for Afro-Cuban tradition. If Thursday night’s first set was any indication, the high energy, deep musicality and spontaneity of his former Guantanamera residency continues apace.

Though pianist Edgar Pantoja had only recently replaced Ariacne Trujillo in the quartet, he seemed well esconced within the intuitive rapport and rhythmic cohesion Martinez shares with longtime partners bassist Alvaro Benavides and percussionist Jhair Sala.

Martinez’s new residency is already a fresh scene worth catching for both reliable thrills and the potential for suprises. On Thursday, percussionist Román Díaz, Martinez’s mentor and himself a forceful presence in New York these days, sat at a corner table. Seated nearby was Ernesto Gatell, who has been principal singer in Cuba’s most important rumba groups, and who Martinez first made music while growing up in the Cayo Hueso neighborhood of Havana. (Gatell now lives in Washington, D.C.)

Near the set’s end, Gatell took the stage, singing with obvious authority; Martinez lent harmony, and then responses to Gatell’s calls. Soon, Díaz joined them onstage, taking over Martinez’s congas. “Luisito” Quintero stepped up too, playing bongos. Martinez, white handkerchief in hand, left the stage to dance between the club’s café tables. It was a reminder of Martinez’s roots: of the rumba tradition he learned form elders like Gatell, in which music and dance are parts of a whole; and of his own career, which involved distinction as a dancer long before he became a sought-after percussionist. And the scene offered a taste of the atmosphere at a rumba club in Havana, when things heat up through both rhythmic intensity and the warmth of personal associations.

Martinez will be back at Subrosa with regular midweek residencies, including November 19, 20. The club’s upcoming bookings include another noteworthy Cuban musician, drummer Francisco Mela (his son quartet plays December 12, 19 & 26). For complete listings and more information, go here.

The club’s grand opening is set for December, according to Bensusan. This week was a “soft launch,” he said.

Yet it sounded loud and hard-hitting. And plopped down into a basement within a wildly gentrified neighborhood, the traditions Martinez and his partners called forth seemed at once ancient and more hip than anything smartly dressed trendwatchers dished out on the street above.

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