At Greenwich Village’s famed Blue Note Jazz Club on a cold Monday night in February, instruments are strewn across the stage. There’s nary a place to step, yet Brooklyn-based French musician Mino Cinelu intuitively finds each new instrument he needs amongst the pedals and wires, without missing a beat. He seamlessly switches from drums to egg shakers to water drum. He flicks a triangle like it’s hot to the touch. He stretches his hand across the stage and caresses a belly-dancing scarf, its gauzy fabric dripping with coins that stir in his fingers. His body itself becomes an instrument, as he claps his hands together and punctuates beats with forceful stomps that reverberate off the stage floor.
Mino Cinelu is a musician—and a performer. The jazz percussionist draws energy toward him and releases it back to the audience in a swell of notes and beats.
“He’s the most sought out percussionist,” Ra Araya whispers to me, speaking of Mino Cinelu with sincere authority. “Art Blakey literally picked him up and said, ‘Now you’re coming with me.’” Araya, the poet and poetry event organizer who set up the premier reading for Burning Furiously Beautiful, had invited me to the show, asking me to review it.* It is my first time ever hearing Cinelu live or otherwise, and I sit mesmerized by the way the jazz musician embodies his music.
Cinelu’s music is simultaneously out-of-body and corporeal. The tempo echoes the pulse of the earth and his vocal cord arrangements hum like the sounds of nature, building toward an ethereal plane. Pulling from various traditions, his world-fusion jazz unites through the exchange of ideas and sounds and cultures. It makes the listener think. It makes the listener feel. It makes the listener anticipate. His lips move to the beat of the drum as he slaps it. He scrunches his face and groans. The flesh of his cheeks tremble to the beat. Sweat drips from his temple as he whips his dreadlocks around. His muscles are taut, suggesting his years of making music have built his body.
Cinelu was born in Saint-Cloud, in the western suburbs of Paris. “From a very young age I had to take care of myself. Let’s just say that,” says the musician, who grew up in a violent home. He was born into a musical family, and as a child learned to play the guitar. By sixteen, he was already a professional musician with gigs in London and New York. In the 1980s, after moving to New York, he met Miles Davis and went on tour with him. Like others who played with Davis, Cinelu then went on to be part of Weather Report, one of the earliest jazz-fusion bands, though the band dismissed that label. The ever-changing roster of musicians in Weather Report played an amalgamation of free jazz, funk, rock, R&B, Latin jazz, and other ethnic music. In the ’90s Cinelu emerged as a solo artist, releasing his self-titled album in 2000. Cinelu has played with everyone from Stevie Wonder to Herbie Hancock, and from Sting to Lou Reed.
Cinelu continues to surround himself with an impressive array of talent, and the Mino Cinelu World Jazz Ensemble seems to grow in number as more and more musicians take to the stage as the evening progresses. The band includes Jamshied Sharifi (keys & flute), Mamadou Ba (bass), and Jose Davila (tuba & percussion). A graduate of MIT, Sharifi went on to study at the esteemed Berklee College of Music. He composed the soundtracks for Muppets from Space, Harriet the Spy, The Rugrats Movie, Clockstoppers, and The Thomas Crown Affair. Ba was the musical director for Harry Belafonte’s orchestra and was one of the founding members of African Blue Note Band. Davila has played with everyone from Ray Charles to Marc Anthony, and from Tito Puente to Nora Jones.
At the Blue Note, special guest Bria Skonberg (trumpet & flugelhorn) joins the Mino Cinelu World Jazz Ensemble on stage. She covers the mouth of the brass instrument with her shiny red nails, playing along with the music, til suddenly she tilts her head back and BLOWS! Face scrunched in exertion, much like Cinelu’s, Skonberg plays powerfully, masterfully. “We’ll keep her after the gig,” Cinelu jokes in appreciation of her talent.
By the end of the first set, Cinelu is standing on top of an amp. He thanks everyone, including the waitresses at the jazz club. Despite the snow still on the ground and despite the early day of the week, fans have poured into venue. Among them is actress Pauletta Washington, Denzel’s wife. “I stole some of her moves,” teases Cinelu.
Then, just as they arrived, one by one the musicians file off the stage into the aisles of The Blue Note, still playing their instruments. The music stays with us as they disappear in the dark.
*My ticket and minimum were comped, but these opinions are my own.