Having given the New York Latin jazz scene a good shake in the last six years, Dafnis Prieto took only one set to prove a point: This slightly built, boyish-looking Cuban is a phenomenal drummer.
Splendidly trained at the Havana National School of Music, Prieto blew into New York in 1999 and made himself indispensable as a sideman; earlier this year, he emerged as a leader with the release of his first album, “About the Monks,” on the Zoho label. What’s ear-bending about the CD is that it sounds as if there is more than one drummer playing on the session. But no, it’s all Prieto — and seen live in real time, it’s no illusion, for he appears to have complete independence of both hands and feet.
Prieto takes his cues from complex Cuban hand-drumming traditions dating back centuries, so his is a very busy sound, all polyrhythms with dazzling varieties of color, handled with disarming subtlety. He tries to cover every square inch of texture — and like most great drummers, his upper frame appears to be totally relaxed; he can probably play at this high-octane clip all night.
Prieto’s writing, though, is thoroughly contemporary — thoughtful, edgy, catching a mournful Latin strain and percussive obsession in “On and On,” aware of the power of shifting dynamic levels.
What we didn’t hear from Prieto is a great sense of drive that can push all of these polyrhythms forward irresistibly. Regardless, he is clearly pushing the Afro-Cuban jazz language into new territory. Indeed, his rhythmic ideas are so advanced that he makes his sidemen seem conventional, even when saxophonists Yosvany Terry and Peter Apfelbaum streak into the outside. And thanks to the Bakery’s somewhat renovated acoustics, the quintet’s inner workings were heard in much clearer balance, even when the dual saxes and Prieto’s hands and feet were blasting at full volume.