Ninety Miles crosses boundaries: Cuban-American jazz project borrows from rich cultural regions

When you combine American jazz from cities such as New Orleans and New York City with some of the leading Latin musicians from Cuba and Puerto Rico, you will more than likely come up with a musical collaboration that transcends musical and geographic boundaries.

On April 2, the region’s music lovers will get to taste the flavor of this American and Latin jazz collaboration with Ninety Miles, a Cuban-American jazz concert at the Schwab Auditorium. The band includes a trio of jazz greats, featuring American trumpeter Nicholas Payton, American vibraphonist Stefon Harris and Puerto Rican saxophonist David Sanchez.

Born in New Orleans in 1973, Payton comes from a city well known for its rich traditions in music and culture. Growing up, he had many musical influences to draw from, including his own father, the late bassist and sousaphonist Walter Payton; and his mother, a pianist and operatic singer. But when speaking about how certain artists have influenced him, Payton said he mainly tries to adopt a style all his own.

“I’ve had a lot of influences, but the end game is ultimately filtered through my own voice,” he said.

Payton has performed with a number of jazz greats, including Wynton Marsalis, with whom he performed at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York City during the 1990s. The Grammy winner last appeared at Penn State in 2010 as part of the New Orleans Nights concert with another legendary artist, Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Allen Toussaint. Aside from being an accomplished trumpet player, Payton plays keyboards and is a composer and bandleader.

A native of Puerto Rico, Sanchez took up the conga when he was 8 and the tenor saxophone at age 12. As a child he was taken with the music of Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Billie Holiday. After moving to New York City in 1986, Sanchez studied music at Rutgers University.

Originally from Albany, N.Y., and a resident of Newark, N.J., Harris is a four-time Grammy Award winner. The Los Angeles Times has called him “one of the most important young artists in jazz.” In 2011, Harris recorded the album “Ninety Miles” in Havana, collaborating with Sanchez and trumpeter Christian Scott. Harris made his Center for the Performing Arts debut in 2009, when he performed with Imani Winds.

The Ninety Miles project also includes a band made up of some of the finest musicians from the Caribbean. The group features Cuban percussionist (conga and bata) Mauricio Herrera, Venezuelan pianist Edward Simon, Puerto Rican bassist Ricky Rodriguez, and Puerto Rican drummer Henry Cole.

Payton has played in Ninety Miles with Harris and Sanchez for more than a year and said the group has undergone several reincarnations.

“Initially the group started as a collaboration between Cuban and American musicians, and since that it’s gone through several personnel changes,” he said.

The project truly is a musical marriage of American and Latin influences.

“Obviously New Orleans has its traditions and its history, which is mostly linked and tied to the Afro-Caribbean musical tradition,” Payton said. “We’re drawing from a wide range of things; not only the folklore of Cuba to the folklore of Puerto Rico, but also Haiti and New Orleans. The group has definitely moved beyond just being a collaboration between Cuban and American music. It’s reached a broader Afro-Caribbean and American influence.”