MUSIC | Doug Little feeds his musical curiosity with Seven Steps To Havana


Seven Steps To Havana blow a hole in the stereotype that the best jazz is about being cerebral, cats on the bandstand blowing their brains out with one purpose in mind—to show how many notes they can jam into one phrase. With this ensemble, the point isn’t to just prove who has the heaviest chops. They come with passion, giving the audience something to feel. 

In the group are: Viviana Pintado (piano-vocals), Eliezer Freitas-Santos (percussion), Mark Miller (trombone), Bill Simenson (trumpet), Yohannes Tona (bass), Mariano Flores (drums-timbales), and founder Douglas Little on reeds and flute.

Little, who also fronts The Doug Little Quartet, has recorded nine CDs, and gigged throughout the U.S. and Europe, including an artist’s residency in France. The album is Seven Steps To Havana, a foray into Latin sounds, Cuban jazz its specialty.

The personnel has changed at Seven Steps To Havana since the album. What happened?
With Seven Steps to Havana I’m seeking to create a band and sound that is almost more like a concept or movement instead of specific set of individual musicians. I’m seeking to have the styles and the repertoire be the focus of the music. Of course, at the same time, I’m trying to work with the best musicians available. However, if one individual who regularly plays with the group cannot commit to a performance, I have repertoire ready. The band is not designed to be so musician-centric that only [specific musicians] can perform. With a sound malleable enough to be interpreted by others, I hope to keep Seven Steps To Havana on stage for many years to come. Regarding the musicians who performed on a majority of the recorded tracks and the current line up, there has been a change at trumpet and drums. Greg Paulus recorded the CD. At a time he was based in New York but making frequent visits to his parents in St. Paul. He’s no longer doing that. So I had to find another trumpet player who lived in town. Rey Rivera drummed on the CD but Mariano Flores plays with the group currently. Rey is a fantastic player. [He’s] justifiably in demand in Minnesota and throughout the United States. Eventually, there were too many conflicting concerts and tours. So, so I decided it would be better to work with Mariano, who has more time to commit to the band.

What moved you to start the band?
I was inspired by really good Latin jazz. The really good band Latin jazz made me wish there was a band like the ones I [had] heard in Havana and New York City that could play here in the Twin Cities. I eventually gave up on waiting for someone else to start such a group and decided to do it myself. Particularly after my second trip to Cuba in 2005.

What drew you to Cuban jazz?
In one word, rhythm. I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, playing in a jazz band in school. Later I came to the Twin Cities where I founded the group Motion Poets. We played throughout the United States and recorded three CDs during the 1990’s. I later founded my own quartet, which featured at various times Italian pianist Giacomo Aula and gifted pianist Craig Taborn in addition to Kevin Washington and Jeff Bailey. All these groups and projects approached jazz from a North American or European perspective with a focus on complex harmonies or time-honored song forms such as blues and jazz standards. Most often the rhythm was a swing feel and even when it wasn’t, due to the natural limitations of creating music with a single drummer, the rhythm never strayed far from the sonic shores of the United States. Cuban rhythm specifically and Latin rhythms in general are complex in a way that feeds my musical curiosity while at the same time [being] accessible to the jazz-listening audience and, at times, even more popular. For these reasons, I was attracted to do something new and, at the same time, more mainstream than harmonically complex jazz.

What instruments to you play in total, and why do you use these particular models?
In Seven Steps to Havana, I play mostly tenor saxophone. I also perform on flute, bass clarinet, and hand percussion—the guiro and bell.

What’s next?
For Seven Steps To Havana the next step is to tour within the United States and overseas. I’d also like to create a second wave of repertoire that builds on the musical successes of the first songs we’ve worked up. For myself, I continue to lead various bands. [My] salsa group Charanga Tropical is very popular. I’m always pursuing opportunities. I’m a little superstitious and tend to keep potential projects mum so [as] not to jinx myself.