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Galician Grace

Cristina Pato

By Ted Panken

Fifteen minutes into Cristina Pato’s first set on Jan. 15 at Manhattan’s Jazz Standard in support of her new album, Migrations (Sunnyside), after uncorking two ascendant solos on gaita (the Galician bagpipe), she took the microphone.

“How many people here live in New York?” Pato asked. “How many think they are New Yorkers? That’s what this album is about. So many extraordinary people who find their voice in a place that is not your place.”

A New Yorker since 2005, Pato is a native of Ourense, an old Roman city of 100,000 located in the Galicia region of northwest Spain. Recipient of an award saluting her as the 2012 Premio Galega do Año (Galician of the Year), Pato is a pop star in her homeland. Her personal charisma comes through in her work with Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble—she solos extensively in two sections of Osvaldo Golijov’s suite “Air To Air,” documented on the 2009 album Off The Map (World Village), and on a six-movement Vijay Iyer commission titled “Playlist For An Extreme Occasion” that features her on piano and gaita.

That charisma is also palpable in Pato’s ravishing fanfare, improvisation and outro on “Pan Piper,” from the 2011 various artists album Miles Español: New Sketches Of Spain (eOne), produced by Bob Belden. Conversely, on the 2010 album Soas (Boa), Pato showcases her considerable classical piano skills, supporting singer Rosa Cedrón on a program of primarily late 19th century Galician art songs.

On Migrations, arranger Emilio Solla creates improvisational contexts in which Pato, accordionist Victor Prieto, bassist Edward Perez, drummer Eric Doob and an assortment of guests (drawn partly from the Silk Road Ensemble) address not only the traditional muiñeira and polka repertoire with which gaita is associated, but pieces that Pato says “take the bagpipe out of the comfort zone.” These include two Solla originals with tango and South Indian flavors, Miles Davis’ “Blue In Green” and Antônio Carlos Jobim’s “Dindi.” In addition to playing gaita, piano, flute and pandeireta, Pato contributes vocals to the disc.

“My constant challenge is to find the right language,” Pato explained in a Galician restaurant near her Greenwich Village home. “[The gaita] is a monodic instrument with 14 notes, and not the full chromatic scale. Also, you are always fortissimo, yet the idea of dynamics and details is very important for jazz. To find chromaticisms that aren’t on the instrument, I developed ways to slide and bend, trying to improvise more with colors and noise and texture than the actual melody. With piano, you have all these notes you can use; on gaita, making something interesting with those 14 notes keeps me always thinking.”

For her piano gigs, Pato explained that she dons glasses and puts up her green-fringed hair: “It’s the more polished Cristina, while the bagpipe is my wild side—like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”

Pato dual-tracked early in Ourense, studying classical piano at conservatory and, two buildings away, attending a bagpipe school. By her teens, she was the only soloist in a touring bag- pipe band. By age 18, she had recorded her first solo bagpipe album. At the time, she was continuing her studies toward a degree at Liceu Conservatory in Barcelona, where she’d moved at 17, the year she also began taking jazz piano classes with Guillermo Klein. Shortly after moving to New York, a chance meeting with Prieto—a fellow Galician and Liceu classmate— rekindled her jazz interest.

“As a pianist who never improvised and a bagpiper who was constantly improvising, jazz helped me take the piano outside the classical world and take the gaita outside the traditional world,” Pato said. “Victor’s freedom and facility helps me with my instrument, and the accordion is the perfect match for the bagpipe. The Silk Road Ensemble keeps opening my eyes to how things connect.”