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The New Cool: Duende Libre's American Drift

Abe Beeson
Duende Libre's new second album, Drift. Out now!

Seattle-based trio Duende Libre is releasing its new album Driftwith a party at the Rainier Arts Center on Friday, June 29th. Band leader and keys player Alex Chadsey sat down to talk with me about the trio's latest release, and their continuing exploration of musical influences from around the globe.

Chadsey told me that after a recent successful stretch of live shows with bassist Farko Dosumov and drummer Jeff "Bongo" Busch, he wanted to strike while the iron was hot. The heat is noticeable over an excellent collection of mostly original tunes drawing from African, Brazilian, and Latin jazz styles; the result is truly American music. The new album wasn't built with this message in mind, but after a few listens it seemed clear to me.

At this time of dramatic developments in U.S. immigration policy, Chadsey says his band couldn't exist without the inspiration of immigrants. "Many of my most important mentors (not to mention Farko) were either immigrants or first-generation progeny of immigrants. I shudder to think what this country would be like without immigrants. An America without immigrants would not be America at all."

Chadsey met Seattle-based composer and singer Chava Mirel in Clinton Fearon's popular local reggae band, and she's been collaborating with Duende Libre for a while. Three songs on Drift feature Mirel's voice acting as a fourth instrument, singing melodies rather than lyrics. "People connect with the human voice in a way that's really unique," Alex says, adding that the band hopes to expand Mirel's role in Duende Libre as they prepares material for a third album.

Credit Olli Tumelius
The band's all here! Duende Libre with Chava Mirel and Frank Anderson.

Drift opens with "Zephyr (for Meltem)", which Chadsey wrote for "a beautiful Turkish woman I met in Paris." Acoustic piano and hand percussion develop a lovely melody with Mirel's voice adding some intrigue to the gentle push and pull of the composition.

Duende Libre recorded the title song a" target="_blank">couple of years ago, but this is it's first album release, which you'll hear on The New Cool Saturday afternoon on KNKX. Electric keys with a driving "power trio" pace quickly develops into a dance floor filler. Chadsey explains, "I was experimenting with the juxtaposition of the 12/8 meter you find a lot in West African music, then superimposing the melody in 4." Don't worry about the math, just enjoy the groove.

The lone cover is "Spain", a musicians' favorite by Chick Corea. It's a song they've played before as a trio, but the new recording includes Mirel's vocals in the role originated by Flora Purim. It's one of the most famous songs to feature wordless vocals, but for Duende Libre "it wasn't a vocal feature, but now it is!" says Chadsey. Dosumov and Busch add funky percussive elements that help make this modern standard their own.

Farko Dosumov's tune "Subway" is an example, Chadsey tells me, of Farko experimenting with new techniques on electric bass. "He was trying out this slap-technique thing, and that became 'Subway'. I'm so happy he brought that in."

One of Seattle's favorite imports, Brazilian pianist Jovino Santos Neto provided the inspiration for "Choro". Chadsey explains, "He takes this traditional Brazilian form, the choro, and infuses it with rich jazz harmonies and some 20th Century classical music." Alex learned to play the original song, but wanted to develop his own version. Jovino should be proud.

Cuban influence comes next. "Kiki" is Alex Chadsey's tribute to a relatively recent Seattle arrival, Enrique "Kiki" Valera, who is considered one of the world's greatest cuatro players. "I'm taking what I know about traditional Cuban son, and trying to... mess with it," says Chadsey. It's a beautiful mess, and perfect for dancing.  You can hear Kiki Valera's band Cubaché at the North City Wine Bistro tonight (June 22). Valera also will present the live Cuban music show La Serenata Cubana at the Triple Door July 13th with a KNKX studio session scheduled for 2pm on the 12th. 

The closing song on Drift, "Bosphorus" connects the circle back to Turkey. It's named for the waterway that has traditionally separated Europe and Asia on the banks of the ancient city of Istanbul. Chadsey says he was inspired by the "mystical" crossing of cultures there dating to earliest civilization. The music blends exotic middle eastern melody and the rhythmic energy that's become the trio's signature.

Duende Libre's Drift is a celebration of what makes America great, the fusion of influences from every corner of the globe. This country is home to nearly every culture on Earth, and almost all of us can point to a recent immigrant past.  Chadsey says, "It's the contributions of folks from all over the world who have made this country their home that makes it truly great. That is America to me."

You can travel the world without leaving Seattle at Duende Libre's release party for Drift Friday, June 29th at the Rainier Arts Centerin Seattle's Columbia City, presented in a partnership with KEXP's world music program Wo' Pop. Chava Mirel and soulful blues singer Frank Anderson will join the band for a few songs. The show is open to all-ages, with beer, wine and food available.

The New Cool airs Saturdays from 3 to 5pm, hosted by Abe Beeson and produced by KNKX Public Radio in Seattle.