Street Smart and Brainy Too

Whenever two or more people gather in the name of big, audacious, open-minded art, anything heavenly or earthly may result. Bring together the talents of Cuban-born violin contrarian Alfredo Triff and Brazilian composer and saxophonist Livio Tragtenberg, and all of pop culture -- not to mention the traditional rhythms of the artists' respective home countries and the legacy of the avant-garde -- will be up for grabs. Watch what happens when the two reunite onstage Friday and Saturday at the Miami Beach Community Church. The occasion, Cuba Meets Brazil, is part of the seventh-annual FLA/BRA (Florida/Brazil) Festival presented by Tigertail Productions. (The two performed at the 1999 festival.)

Triff, an assistant professor of philosophy and humanities at Miami-Dade Community College and art critic for this newspaper, earlier this year traveled to São Paulo to lecture in philosophy, work with a dancer, and hash out another collaboration with Tragtenberg. Widely known as a prolific movie composer, Tragtenberg has contributed his music to films such as last year's Brava Gente Brasileira (Brave New Land), Latitude Zero, and Através da Janela. He's also applied his creativity to ballet, opera, and poetry projects, working in Germany as well as South America.

The general idea for the FLA/BRA performances, each to last about 45 minutes: live acoustic instruments played over prepared tracks and samples utilizing musical elements associated with film, nightclubs, and sundry international styles. "I'll be able to do a couple of tracks, and he'll bring four or five tracks," says 46-year-old Triff, an American since the Mariel boatlift of 1980 and a Miamian for the past decade. "It's like Brazilian drum and bass with electric violin, but [Tragtenberg] does it very minimally. Then of course you have this eruption of Brazilian percussion. I'll do the same, maybe with congas.

"He's bringing the bass clarinet, which I think is a great sound for this," Triff adds. "He brings this free sound. If you listen to him playing the reeds, he brings an Albert Ayler, early Ornette Coleman sort of sound. You don't expect that to be on top of a very harmonically predictable track. It's sort of like Angelo Badalamenti when he plays with [the soundtracks of] David Lynch. I will process my sound with some preamps but not too much. I don't want to change the violin to a different instrument. I'll listen to the tracks and find spots in the tracks where I can provide ideas. I guess he'll do the same. It may be a very, very open sketch of ideas, of moods."

Open-ended textures, improvisations, and rhythms also define the sound of 21 Broken Melodies at Once, Triff's recently released debut solo disc, a brilliantly conceived, artfully executed work exploring a kind of dreamy netherworld, exotic and melancholy. The disc, produced by Kip Hanrahan, has Triff on electric violin, electric bass, and electric mandola, joined by acoustic bassist Andy Gonzalez, drummers Horacio Hernandez and Robby Ameen, vocalist Xiomara Lougart, reedist Yosvany Terry Cabrera, and conguero Roman Diaz for a series of 21 interconnected soundscapes. Mournful themes are unexpectedly announced and then vanish just as quickly. A big band charges in, wafting into and out of our hearing before giving way to swirling metallic strings. Bare congas predominate momentarily. Lougart appears, providing a sudden, seductive moment of clarity. Gonzalez drops acoustic bass lines so sticky a listener is barely able to resist the impulse to join other revelers on that imaginary dance floor. A martial beat intrudes. It's sex, death, heartbreak. Cuba. Africa. America.

Hanrahan, Triff's employer on celebrated Nineties albums such as A Thousand Nights and a Night, Exotica, and Tenderness, as well as several tours, is credited with "conceptual strategies" for the album, recorded at Sorcerer's Sound in New York's SoHo, not far from the plot of land that has come to be known as Ground Zero. The disc was released on Hanrahan's label, American Clave, and simultaneously on Justin Time and Japan's EWE Records. But the famed producer applied his usual ethos, working more as a facilitator than as a strict style disciplinarian.

"I felt it was his label, and I didn't want to disappoint him," Triff recounts. "But he gave me this sense of saying, “Do Alfredo's trip. Do that which is you.' I was insecure, wondering if I should bring all these different facets together on the album. But he stood for that. He said our aesthetics are so different. So I had free rein to do whatever I wanted."

Triff, of course, has seldom not gone his own way, at least since leaving Fidel's fiefdom. Back then, a lifetime ago, the supremely talented young violinist plied his trade wherever he was assigned, whether at concerts or hotel gigs. Or as Hanrahan relates in the liner notes to the new CD: "Each day the Party (as his employer) would tell him where and what he was to play -- with an aging charanga band one night, Tchaikovsky for a visiting head of an African state the next, at a guaguanco street festival the next, with Leo Brower on a film soundtrack the next, with a tourist son band the next."

Upon arriving in the United States and initially settling in Pennsylvania, Triff consciously jettisoned all obligations to play anything other than music of his own choosing. He fled toward academics, studying humanities, philosophy, and mathematics on the graduate level, and in 1996 gaining a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Miami. Before relocating to South Florida, he lived in New York, variously hanging with the Latin-music crowd, Downtown types, and purveyors of charanga music and rock. He has performed with Jack Bruce, Don Pullen, Cachao, Eddie Palmieri, and others.

Triff's alliance with Tragtenberg offers yet another opportunity for the violinist to indulge his ardor for improvisation and collaboration. "Livio is not your typical popular musician who was born in the streets," Triff says. "This is a musician who is highly educated in the traditions of twentieth-century music, and he is a composer. Yet he's in touch. That's what I like about him. With me you have someone who definitely is in touch with what's going on, and yet I am not a popular musician either, by training. And yet I feel very much connected [to pop music and culture]. It's a juxtaposition of some improvisatory traditions within twentieth-century music, jazz, and our respective popular traditions."