Gai Bryant’s Cuban adventure

Gai Bryant with saxophone

Interview with Gai Bryant
by Phil Sandford

Gai Bryant with saxophone
Gai Bryant

Saxophonist-composer Gai Bryant, who is completing her Master’s in Composition at the Sydney Conservatorium, has found inspiration in traditional Cuban music for her latest big-band project.

She is completing a set of seven pieces using traditional Cuban folkloric music styles rumba, danzon, bolero and tonada. Gai chose these styles as they provided scope for improvisation. ‘Tonadas are found in country areas of Cuba and have an interesting format,’ she says. ‘The first singer or “poet” creates a ten syllable or decima verse with a tag line at the end followed by a instrumental interlude. The second singer has to start their verse with that tag line and leave one at the end for the next singer and so on.’

One of Bryant’s charts is an instrumental interpretation of a traditional tonada where the trombone section takes the role of the singers who interact with each other and the rest of the ensemble.

On a recent visit to Cuba to research her project, Bryant met percussionist Roman Justo Pelladito Hernandez, who will join her band, Palacio de la Rumba, in October 2013 for performances in Sydney and Auckland. While the Sydney performances at the Independent Theatre and VJ’s utilise an ensemble of musicians from the local jazz and Latin music communities, in New Zealand Bryant and Pelladito will perform with the Auckland Jazz Orchestra. Bryant says, ‘I want it to sound as authentic as possible and use musicians who play that music all the time and know exactly how the music should be phrased. They’re used to the tempos and the forms of the tunes.’

One of Bryant’s initial inspirations for exploring jazz was hearing a solo piano performance by Don Pullen. She recalls, ‘It was extraordinary music, played with so much passion, fire and finesse – such imaginative playing. I sat there thinking, I wish I could do that – it looks like the best thing in the world.’

She cites a wide range of influences on her musical development, including a love of traditional Korean music, which she intends to return to after completing her current project with a return to Cuba next year to play in the CubaDisco Festival.

‘Jazz can absorb other styles and still allow you to function as a jazz player and that’s really interesting.  You can still interact and keep a flavour of something else.’

Her jazz influences are diverse and range from saxophonists Jane Ira Bloom, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and Archie Shepp to pianists Oscar Peterson, Nat King Cole, Fats Waller and pianist-composer Jim McNeely. More recently she has been listening to saxophonists Will Vinson and John Gallagher.

‘The interesting thing about Gallagher and Vinson is that they both have a free, loose approach to what they are doing’, she says. ‘They are giving themselves room to go anywhere.’

Wayne Shorter is among her greatest influences and she is particularly inspired by his latest release, Without a Net: ‘These people are playing at such a high level, it’s exciting and inspiring! The group knows the tunes so well that they can play a fragment of melody and that’s all that’s needed to begin an amazing exploration of Shorter’s material.’ Bryant mentions a radio interview with the saxophonist in which he said his band works hard to break free of limitations and habits. ‘We want more than an “A” for syncopation,’ Shorter said.

Shorter’s approach sums up Bryant’s attitude of trying to grow, develop and find inspiration in all forms of music, whether it is a Cuban guitarist, a Nigerian drummer , a Korean Taegum player or whatever it is.

‘You have to be engaged in music and try to get yourself to as high a level as you can, whether that’s in composition or in playing, and have fun with it’, Bryant says. ‘You just want to keep learning and growing.’


For more information on Bryant’s Cuban project see

Palacio de la Rumba appear in Sydney at the Independent Theatre on 26 October ( and VJs on 27 October (


Roman Justo Pelladito Hernandez is coming to play with Gai in October 2013


High Jinx 1998

Music 2002

2⁰ East 2004