Percussionist Aron Kaufman has been playing on other musicians’ albums since the early 1980s, including those by the Lunar Glee Club, the band he helped found. However, his new album, Firefly’s Dream, is his first solo CD. A collection of original tunes that trace Kaufman’s lifelong musical journey as both player and composer, it’s the work of a mature musician who has some fresh things to say in a variety of Latin-accented and other jazz styles.
When the album’s title track lifts off with a percussive combination of Kaufman’s congas, claves, and sand blocks, you know you’re in good hands. An infectious calypso tune, “Firefly’s Dream” harkens back to Kaufman’s earliest musical memories, hearing steel drum players in New York City subway stations. The Caribbean theme continues throughout the album, reflecting his family’s move to Puerto Rico for a part of his childhood and his ongoing study of the myriad percussion styles of that region.
You expect unconventional rhythms from a percussionist composer, and Firefly’s Dream features one tune in 5/4 and two in 11/8. But while those time signatures may look odd, the tunes don’t sound peculiar. “Elevenly Blues” feels like a quick waltz, except that the last beat of every fourth measure is cropped off. Kaufman created the distinctly different feel of the other 11/8 tune, “Ode to Ivy,” by singing South Indian rhythmic phrases that he learned from world music master percussionist Glen Velez.
Kaufman doesn’t indulge in lengthy solos, preferring to feature his melodies and generously showcase his Dream Ensemble. The crack team assembled for this album includes Paul VornHagen on saxes and flute, Brandon Cooper on trumpet, Olman E. Piedra on drums and congas, Jeff Dalton on bass, and Sam Clark on guitar. Aptly named, they elevate Kaufman’s syncopated, lyrical melodies. VornHagen and Cooper’s phrasing is seamlessly synced, especially in their harmonies on the singable melody of “Obrigado” and their unison octaves on “Panning for Secrets.” The rhythm section provides underpinnings that are ideally matched to the varied character of the tunes, from the flickering, atmospheric intro of “Ode to Ivy” to the light touch supporting the call and response between flute and guitar on “Rhythm Magic” and the robust and exuberant cha-cha of “Calling to the One.”
Firefly’s Dream closes with “Mano Abierta,” which features the only vocal on the album. Kaufman and the Dream Ensemble chant the counter melody of “Mano abierta, salsa, en mi casa,” (open hand, salsa, in my house) as the joyous main tune flutters around them. Kaufman plays on the double meaning of salsa to welcome listeners to taste the sweetness and uplifting spirit of his musical home.
Aron Kaufman and the Dream Ensemble perform at the Kerrytown Concert House on Thursday, May 16.