Yasek Manzano, the most exciting young trumpet player to come out of Cuba in the last decade, allows himself to be labelled “a jazzman” but says, “I’m also a bit of a classical musician. I like music in general." His parents weren’t musicians – his father taught physics, his mother taught chemistry – but they weren’t unfamiliar with the arts; both had been actors in a university theatre troupe. In any case it was clear their son was headed for a music career. He was introduced to jazz by Bobby Carcassés, the trumpet player who had launched the seminal Jazz Plaza Festival in Havana in 1980, the year Yasek Manzano was born. When he was 13 he joined Carcassés and his band onstage at Jazz Plaza and did so again two years later in 1995.
Manzano studied trumpet at the Aléjandro García Caturla Conservatory in Marianao then went on to the Amadeo Roldan Conservatory. Still in his teens, before and after his military service, he worked with Afro-Cuban percussionist, composer and arranger Oscar ("Oscarito") Valdés. He appeared with Valdés and his group, Diakara, on their album Un Africano en la Habana. "That was a very important experience for me," says Manzano. "After that I was able to develop as a composer."
One night, when he was barely 17, Manzano found himself in a jam session at La Zorra y El Cuervo, the famed Havana jazz club, with American trumpet legend Wynton Marsalis. "Somehow I was brave – audacious – enough to go toe-to-toe with him," Manzano recalls. That same year his audacity compelled him to meet another North American jazz headliner, Roy Hargrove, who was similarly impressed with the Cuban kid’s talent.
Manzano decided to head to the United States to "get acquainted with the roots of jazz, Louis Armstrong, see what’s happening in New Orleans and all that." In 2001 he won a scholarship to the Julliard School of Music. Asked about his American influences, he’s quick to cite Miles Davis. "Of course Miles was – is – an absolute reference for any jazz trumpetist," he says. "Miles had balls. He wasn’t worried if his sound was perfect; he played whatever he felt. I like the period when he was playing with John Coltrane, Gil Evans and Cannonball Adderly [late 1950s], and also when Mles was playing with Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock [1964-68]."
When Manzano was in New York he sought out Wynton Marsalis. As luck would have it, Marsalis had no recollection whatsoever of meeting him four years earlier. Manzano was required to re-audition but Marsalis heard enough to be convinced. He accepted Manzano as a student.
In 2004 Manzano moved back to Havana and began working with the best of Cuba’s young jazz talent. He spent the next five years playing with everyone, trying different line-ups. It seemed at times he had come back to Havana to unlearn the formalism he had absorbed in the United States. "Here in Havana I can meet musicians in the street, walking along the Malecón, guitarists or trova singers, and I can play Cuban music or anything with them, the way I like," he says. "I learn from playing with musicians in the studio, but I also learn a lot playing on the street."
Manzano’s first record under his own name came about after he won Havana’s 2003 Jojazz competition. He wound up sharing the prize and the recording credit with alto saxophonist Roberto Martínez, who contributed six songs to the Jojazz album while Manzano was responsible for five. "I had the chance to make that record and I took it,” Manzano recalls. “I didn’t have a lot of experience as a composer."
Manzano has greater ambitions for his new project, which he was working on when he was interviewed for Havana Cultura. We first met him on the city beach where he likes to exercise with and without his trumpet. “I come less often now because I have some new instruments and I don’t want them to corrode from the salt air,” he told us.
Manzano has an easy laugh and heavy, Dizzy Gillespie-ish glasses, and we followed him over to Abdala, one of Havana’s newer and more well-appointed recording studios. Manzano was backed by a quintet consisting of himself on trumpet, Raciel Jimenez on drums, David Faya on bass, Delvis Ponce on sax, Edgar Martinez on percussion, and Jorge Luis Pacheco on keyboards.
We weren’t sure how much Manzano would have time to show us – he was busy twisting knobs, mixing tapes from some recent sessions – but he clearly enjoys playing his trumpet too much to miss any opportunity to do so. So without any warning he improvised a soaring version of “Stormy Weather,” just for us.