The master jazz singer and drummer will play his Cilla Sin Embargo album, backed by an eight-piece band, in downtown San Miguel de Allende.

Mexico Jazz
Credit: Ann Summa

It's mid-December in Cuba the day before a surprise announcement by President Obama that sanctions on the nation will be lifted. The air in Havana is funky with the smell of fifty-year-old Fords and Chevys running diesel or badly processed Venezuelan petrol. On the Malecon, lovers sit on the seawall opposite the Jose Marti Anti-Imperialist stage, stare out to sea, and watch gulls dive for fish in the reefs of the shallows.

A few minutes away in the Abdaba Studios, 72-year-old master jazz singer and drummer Bobby Kapp, originally from New Jersey but a Mexican ex-pat resident for the last 40 years, is starting to assemble local Cuban musicians to record what he says will be his swan song. Gabriel Hernandez (Afro Cuban All Stars, Buena Vista Social Club, Cubanismo) is the maestro, no questions there. He and Kapp have been working out the songs for months in Mexico, and he has them in his head, every part in its place.

Hernandez bustles around the studio, chatting, hugging newcomers, coming back into the control room to check the sound. It’s been nearly two decades since he saw and worked with some of these guys. He knew some in school, back in Camaguey, but this is far beyond a class reunion—it’s family time. He and saxophone player Alfredo Thompson toured the world as teenagers.

After an all-night session, the tracks for the album, titled Cilla Sin Embargo, are in place. There’s no over-dubbing, no flubs to be repaired later. Like the great free jazz albums that Kapp cut his teeth on in the late-sixties, this is as live as it gets.

Back in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, Cilla Zweig, the subject of the CD, is unaware of the project that has dominated Kapp’s life for months. Kapp's girlfriend and partner for 20 years, she is in her early 60s now and started showing signs of early-onset Alzheimer's eight years ago. Once a designer and the major buyer for a Mexican folk art and crafts store in Los Angeles who traveled the world, she now lives in an assisted living facility just outside town. Kapp visits her nearly every day, although she’s often unable to respond to his presence.

Though the album was released in February of this year, Kapp and Hernandez are bringing the soul of that original Cuba session onto the landmark Angela Peralta stage in downtown San Miguel de Allende this Friday, Oct. 9. Kapp will be accompanied by an eight-piece group of visiting Cuban and Mexican musicians called Orquestra Cubana that was assembled by Hernandez. Some of them played on the original CD. The proceeds from the show will help fund Zweig’s ongoing care.

It’s a rare chance to see Kapp and Hernandez working together, accompanied by a large band of this quality. Although both play regularly around town in trios and quartets, doing club shows when they’re not on the road, the chance to see a completed album, played true to the sensibility of the session, is unique.

Kapp began his career in New York in the late sixties playing free jazz. He performed on some of the great classics of the period, including Three For Shepp with Marion Brown (Impulse), Live at Judson Hall with Noah Howard (ESP), In Search of a Mystery, Gato Barbieri's first recording (ESP), and Dave Burrell High with pianist Dave Burrell.

Jeff Spurrier is based in San Miguel de Allende, and covers the Mexico beat for Travel + Leisure.