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A woman and man stand side by side, angled toward one another, singing. The woman is dressed in a white and gray print dress and holds a clarinet in one hand. The man is wearing a white and gray striped polo. In the background is a window of yellow-orange stained glass.

An afternoon of jazz with Emilio Martini and Natural Trio

A year ago, I led a trip to Havana for the annual Jazz Plaza festival. Of all the music I heard that week, the band that made the strongest impression was Emilio Martini’s Natural Trio. What I loved about them – besides sheer excellence – was their playfulness. You can just tell they’re having a blast, fooling around together and improvising little musical jokes.

The trio consists of Emilio on guitar, Yosvany Betancourt on percussion, and Lázaro “El Fino” Rivera on bass. I now know this is a very distinguished jazz combo. Last year they won a Cubadisco award, the Cuban equivalent of a Grammy, for their latest album, Notas al viento. And El Fino played for years with Chucho Valdés’ Afro-Cuban Messengers, winning a Grammy for their album Chucho’s Steps.

Foreground, a man sits on a stool playing an electric guitar. Background, a man sits at a drum set playing bongos. On the wall behind them is the logo for the Cuban Art Factory.

Emilio Martini and Yosvany Betancourt play at FAC, the Cuban Art Factory, in Havana

But when I first saw them, I didn’t know any of that. I just knew they were damn good, a standout. And after their show, I started chatting with a couple of them. The conversation went something like this:

Me: “So what’s the name of that song you did, the one where Emilio played a riff from Piel Canela? Is that song on your CD?” (Piel Canela is an old Latin standard, and he’d snuck a little bit of it into his guitar solo.)

“Oh, you know Piel Canela?”

“Yeah, I love Piel Canela! In fact, I translated it to English, and I sing it to my travelers in English so they can understand what it’s about.”

“Oh, you sing? You should come hang out tonight, I’m performing with another band, and you can come sing it.”

“Um, I’d love to, but don’t you want to hear me sing something before you put me on stage in front of a paying audience?”

“Oh, it’ll be fine…”

I’m still shocked that they’d so casually invite a total stranger to jump in. Anyways, that night, I get up on stage and do Piel Canela. And the bandleader says, “Hey, do another!” So I do. And then he says, “Hey, come back anytime!” So that’s how I became an occasional guest singer at Havana’s Casa del Tabaco cigar lounge.

That night cemented our friendship. And from then on, I started watching for a chance to hire Natural Trio for a private performance. The chance finally came a couple months ago, when a group from Michigan wanted a high-end “guys’ trip.” As our first activity of the trip, I organized a performance by Natural Trio together with a rum and cigar tasting.

A humidor of cigars sits on a black tabletop alongside a stainless steel cigar cutter and crystal ashtray

For our cigar tasting we had Cohibas, Partagas, and Romeo y Julieta. These are considered best in class, with Cohibas representing Cuba’s strong cigars, Partagas extra strong, and Romeo y Julieta a milder, smoother cigar.

Now when I originally planned it, Natural Trio was the entertainment, and the cigars and rum were for my travelers. But once we were all there, it took me about ten seconds to ask the band, “You guys want some rum?” They got excited, because some of that rum was the kind of expensive you only drink on special occasions. Havana Club’s Unión – created to complement Cuba’s fine cigars, with the rum and tobacco uniting in the perfect combination of flavors – runs about $400 a bottle. And we polished off an entire bottle of Ron Santiago de Cuba’s Isla del Tesoro (“Treasure Island”) – previously Fidel Castro’s personal blend, never available to the general public until after his death, and sold in its very own wooden treasure chest – which retails for $700. I know all these details because our bartender gave us a spiel about all the special bottles of rum arrayed before us. Anyways, for people who enjoy fine rum, this was fine rum.

A row of rum bottles sit on a white tablecloth. In front of them are about a dozen glasses.

Here’s the array of rums for our tasting. Missing from this photo is Isla del Tesoro, which had its own spot at another table.

There was a moment between songs when I was sitting next to the bottle of Treasure Island. Yosvany, the percussionist, came up to pour himself a glass. He’d never seen Treasure Island before and asked me about it, so I explained how it only came on the market in the past year since Fidel’s death, yadda yadda yadda. Then he asked how much it costs, and I told him. His jaw hit the floor, and he got this nervous expression on his face… looked like he was worried about unknowingly drinking something so expensive on my dime. Well, I wasn’t worried. So I did my best to put him at ease. We kept chatting, the moment passed, and he enjoyed that glass with new appreciation for what a treat it was!

A small, open treasure chest contains a beige ceramic jug. On the table next to it are crystal ashtrays.

This is Isla del Tesoro rum, the finest rum we tasted. It comes in a fancy ceramic judge and wooden treasure chest.

Anyways, all the friendship and rum helped create a lovely atmosphere, and we spent a great afternoon with Natural Trio and guest singer/clarinetist Elizabeth “Ely” Padrón. They did some of their original music and some standards. I got in on the action a little, singing Quizas, Quizas and Vereda Tropical together with Ely. And they wrapped up with an extended number featuring each musician. (video below!)

Six people stand chatting, five men and one woman, of varied races. The men are dressed fairly casually, and the woman is more dressed up in a white and gray print dress.

After the band stopped playing, we chatted and enjoyed another round of drinks

When it ended, we all knew this had been something special, and we were all on a high. I remember one of my Michiganders looked at me and said, “Matt, this was fabulous, but you’ve set a really high bar for the rest of the trip.” I had a little moment of panic, thinking, Oh crap, I hope I didn’t peak too early! But I was mostly just thrilled. That was an afternoon I’ll remember.

A dozen people pose for a group photo. The setting is indoors in a tall room with antique furniture and a window in the background. The man at the center of the group holds a ceramic jug of rum.

Our group together with the musicians of Natural Trio

Here’s the song they wrapped up with, Pan con bistec (“Steak sandwich”). Our guide explained that in Cuba, a steak sandwich is the ultimate snack. Personally, I like the snack, but I like the song even better. See what you think!

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