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Latin jazz sure has changed since mamboing the night away was popular entertainment back in the late ’40s. These days, the members of the genre’s intelligentsia are as insular as they come, engaging in turf wars of almost hiphop proportions. Nuyorican pianist Eddie Palmieri once suggested that Cuban music was suffering because of Communist Cuba’s isolation from the United States. Some West Coast percussionists still can’t get props in Spanish Harlem. And, of course, there’s always that endless argument about authenticity: Can non-Hispanic musicians really play Latin jazz?

Jane Bunnett offers more than enough evidence to settle that last one. She’s a white soprano saxophonist and flutist who hails from Toronto and has a commitment to Afro-Cuban music that goes way beyond callow flirtation with the exotic. She never just hits it and quits it, like the many U.S. jazz musicians who occasionally quote from the Latin lexicon. Although she’s not much of a stylistic innovator, she has a profound understanding of the music. And by forging relationships with such Cuban maestros as percussionist Tata Guines, pianist Frank Emilio Flynn, and singer Merceditas Valdes, Bunnett has learned to play and compose in the idiom so well that she even fooled Cuban alto-saxophone/clarinet virtuoso Paquito D’Rivera into believing that she was from his native land during a Down Beat Blindfold Test.

Bunnett’s love affair with Afro-Cuban culture and music began almost two decades ago, when she and trumpeter husband Larry Cramer decided to escape a harsh Canadian winter by taking a cheap vacation to Cuba. She had long been playing in Toronto-based salsa bands, but Bunnett didn’t leap into her newfound genre’s deep waters immediately. Her 1988 debut, In Dew Time, and two succeeding albums found her in decidedly non-Latin modern-jazz settings. But 1992’s Spirits of Havana signaled a new direction and an artistic breakthrough. Since then, she’s released some of the most compelling Afro-Cuban jazz CDs of the past decade.

Her latest, Cuban Odyssey, is both her most ambitious and her most persuasive. Basically a soundtrack for the 2000 National Film Board of Canada documentary Spirits of Havana, which charts Bunnett’s musical and social interactions with various Cubans, the CD unfolds like a beautiful travelogue, untainted by gimmickry or exploitation. Bunnett first explored the Cuban landscape beyond Havana on the recently Grammy-nominated Alma de Santiago, concentrating on the music of Santiago de Cuba and bringing to prominence the seldom-discussed Chinese ingredients in Cuban culture. With Cuban Odyssey, she ventures away from the capital once more, this time to the provinces of Matanzas, Cienfuegos, and Camaguey, and with the help of 10-piece vocal ensemble Grupo Vocal Descendann shines light on Haitian influences.

On the festive rumba “Ron con Ron (Rum With Rum),” Bunnett allows her spiky sax lines to mimic Guines’ conga cadence as vocals weave in and out of the mix. But she soon breaks free from the repetitive four-note chant and uncoils a luxuriant solo, gaining more momentum with each bar. Once her improvisation becomes airborne, she builds upon the original motif, then aggressively spirals her notes downward. Enlivened by additional solos from Changuito’s thunderous timbale and Cramer’s smeary trumpet, “Ron con Ron” aptly conveys the joyful camaraderie Bunnett has built with many of the Cubans she’s befriended over the years.

Blissful vibes abound on Cuban Odyssey, but the disc’s most stirring moments are more than merely joyous. When Bunnett traveled to the port city of Matanzas, she hooked up with the legendary Los Munequitos de Matanzas, a family-based collective of percussionists that has been operating since 1952. From their collaboration came the dark “Suite Matanzas (Swingin’ in the Solar),” which slowly builds out of sparse clave, conga, bata drums, and chorus to a colossal wall of sound, with quicksilver polyrhythms surging underneath Bunnett’s plaintive melody. As the velocity increases, the complexity of the rhythms intensifies, to levels that sometimes nearly drown out Bunnett’s sax and Cramer’s trumpet. But the two eventually come out victorious, their melodies coalescing in a triumphant trill.

Bunnett’s collaboration with Grupo Vocal Descendann, recorded in Camaguey, is equally haunting. Here, Bunnett takes a dramatic turn with a three-part suite featuring the choral group, which sings in Haitian patois rather than Spanish or Yoruban. Switching to flute for Part 1, “Nan Fonn Bwaa,” Bunnett soars through harmonies that sound very much like traditional African-American gospel. She bows out entirely for the dreamy, formalized choral piece “Alabans,” then takes up the sax again, with Cramer on trumpet, for the lithe, calypso-driven “Prizon.” Throughout, Descendann’s pensive singing, along with Bunnett’s pithy playing, creates evocative soundscapes that startle with their emotional sweep. Although the supereclectic suite very nearly threatens the continuity of Cuban Odyssey, its solemn emotionalism is something you seldom hear on contemporary Afro-Cuban-jazz albums.

Another, rather unlikely, highlight originated in the studios of Toronto, where Bunnett recorded the scintillating “Pensando en Jane (Thinking of Jane).” Composed by 18-year-old piano prodigy David Virelles, the song is the only one on the album to feature a standard trap drum. It’s also the most straight-ahead tune here, but that doesn’t negate the delight of the intricate polyrhythms or the intriguing harmonies created by Bunnett’s soprano, Cramer’s raspy trumpet, and Vladimir Paisan’s double-reed Chinese cornet. With its three-horn melodies atop a sea of rumbling percussion, the track moves back and forth between explosive wonderment and restrained introspection—which, come to think of it, has been Bunnett’s MO ever since she began playing Afro-Cuban music. With Cuban Odyssey, she’s delivered a masterpiece that reveals both the island’s and her own incredible musicality. And that’s sure to please the Latin-jazz intellectual just as much as the average listener. CP