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Goodspeed you! Jazz emperor 

Jeff Goodspeed is Halifax’s resident Cuban jazz expert. Here he talks in loving detail about what makes it so great. “It’s very complex,” he says, “but the salsa feel gives you so much room to experiment.”

The afternoon’s as hot as Beelzebub’s hip pocket when musician Jeff Goodspeed shows up for a chat about what’s got him so stoked about Cuban jazz. His trio is playing a wedding reception in an hour. Which explains why, on a scorching day better suited for baggy shorts and flip-flops, he’s turned out in black dress pants and matching shoes. The wedding couple, two women, have requested light Latin jazz. Smart choice. Being cool when it’s hot. Goodspeed, broadchested as an opera tenor, parks himself at a table and quaffs some iced tea. He’s a handsome dude with a ready, good-natured grin and infectious laugh, which he often uses like punctuation.

In a way, Goodspeed’s musical story could easily be titled: My Winner With Silvio. Silvio being Silvio Pupo, an astonishingly gifted ex-pat Cuban keyboardist and Goodspeed’s colleague in duos, trios, quartets and Goodspeed’s current Latin-jazz blast furnace, HavanaFax.

Late 1990s. Pupo, married to a Canadian woman in the airline industry, moves to HRM.

“I was playing The Two Gulls in Tantallon when Silvio walked in,” Goodspeed recalls. “He sat in and we asked what he’d like to play. He said, ‘Anything if you have a paper for it.’ I picked “Darn That Dream” as a fast samba. Silvio ate it up and everyone in the club cheered like mad.”

Playing with Pupo at first posed no problem for Goodspeed. However, as a duo...

“Here’s Silvio laying down all this kind of salsa-swing music mix kind of thing,” he says, running a hand back over his thick black hair. “Take a tune like ‘Oleo.’”

Head bobbing, finger-snapping, he scats the Sonny Rollins classic. Suddenly Goodspeed growls a salsa bassline. “G’gong-g’gong, g’gong-g’gong.” And flashes a wide grin. “Silvio’s doing this on top of it! I kept getting all screwed up,” he says, laughing.

Goodspeed couldn’t have had a better mentor for a big bounce from familiar silky Brazilian bossa novas and sambas (fast bossas) to fiery Cuban grooves. The desire to grow in Latin music was solid. Hey, playing jazz and cocktail gigs, his repertoire preference resolutely leaned towards the straight-eighths standards (that Latin feel in jazz wherein the beat is subdivided into two equal parts). As it turns out, his indefatigable perseverence paid off.

“One of those times as a duo, Silvio was playing changes for me and I was soloing. Then he brings in that g’gong-g’gong bassline too.” Goodspeed’s pale eyes widen dramatically. “And I held it together. I went, ‘Ohh, OK.’ It’s a matter of having the confidence to go ahead with what you think is really gonna sound wrong and then, ‘Uh-OK, we’re alright!’”

He leans back, hands cupping the iced tea glass.

“When you play with Silvio, the music turns into something else. Quite often there’s a double-time swing on top of straight eighths. It’s very complex but, because the salsa feel gives you so much room to experiment, it’s really open.”

That openness is kept “from going off madly in all directions” by, as jazz educator Mark Levine explains, “a strict adherence to clave (clah-vay)—a two bar forward and reverse and vice versa rhythmic pattern. Every component of salsa—drum patterns, repeated piano figures, basslines, melody phrasings—has to be in gear with the clave. Virtually all salsa music is composed and performed either forward or reverse clave.”

Got that? Fortunately Goodspeed did. And more.

But what of how Goodspeed got to now? Backgrounders of players’ musical transits—where fate, connections and whims have interceded—range from evolutions zanily fast and focused to maddeningly plodding and foggy.

Or, plunked, dab in the middle-ground, direct and steady, with ears and eyes unceasingly attuned for the self-defining, creatively inspiring genre off-ramp. The latter is where Goodspeed’s chronology appears to fit.

“My first instrument was the violin, because I saw Don Messer on the television,” he says, gazing into the iced tea.” I played that for about five years, starting when I was eight years old.” Aged 12, school band classes intervened: “I wanted to play the sax from the beginning of band but was given the clarinet.”

At 14, he copped the sax, learned flute at 19. The Berklee College of Music in Boston and Toronto’s performance hothouse, Humber College, followed. So too, stints with Roger Whitaker, the RCMP Band (Musical Pride Division) and Toronto’s polyrhythmic dance music ensemble Manteca. Back east, Goodspeed has gigged with Salsa Picante and freelanced as performer and bandleader, winning ECMAs as a jazz recording artist. As an Acadia Jazz Camp educator, shepherding Los Primos—jazz student exchanges between Cuba and Nova Scotia—he started on-going Cuba visits. It was a big inch-step, taken to gain a mile.

Musicians have also got to love crossroad meetings that facilitate sometimes fortuitous, sometimes fabulistic, right or left turns.

For example, legendary blues innovator Robert Johnson’s alleged meeting with the devil at a musical intersection. Or Cuban music legends Mario Bauza and Francisco Raul Guitierrez Grillo (mercifully nicknamed Machito) who, in the early 1940s, combined the Latin music of their Afro-Cuban Orchestra with jazz sounds they heard in NYC. El bingo! Afro-Cuban jazz. And Truro’s Jeff Goodpseed and Silvio Pupo—this pairing, a microcosm of HavanaFax, the hot, high-energy fusion of Halifax and Havana musicians.

This jazz festival, complementing Goodspeed and company—Pupo on piano and keyboards, Dave Burton on drums and Tom Roach on timbales and hand percussion—are Havana’s Tony Rodriguez (piano), bassist Avi Garcia and Rodney Yllarza on congas.

“It should be very interesting,” says Goodspeed. “These guys are the rhythm section for Isaac Delgado, Havana’s hottest popular dance music guy.”

The time’s up. A wedding reception to play. A winner. With Silvio.


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