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Influential sounds; Raven reunites; 90 Miles excites the jazz world

Many prominent musicians have emerged from Buffalo over the past four or five decades, and some of them even became famous in the mainstream sense of the word. Ask a person from somewhere else what they know about Buffalo music, and you're likely to hear the names Rick James, Billy Sheehan, the Goo Goo Dolls, Brian McKnight or Ani DiFranco.

All of the above have done the Buffalo region proud. But ask musicians in the area -- folks who have spent their lives playing music in our pubs and clubs and on our outdoor stages -- who the most important band to emerge from Buffalo was, and you might be surprised. Odds are, those folks -- if they are musicians or music lovers of a certain age -- will mention Raven. Though the band was only together between 1966 and 1970, so stirring was its blend of rock, blues, R&B, progressive music and jazz-fusion that, decades later, fans still get a gleam in their eye when they talk about the group.

Raven was born from the ashes of Stan & the Ravens, the fiery R&B/blues outfit presided over by the legendary Stan Szelest. When Szelest hooked up with another legend, singer Ronnie Hawkins, the members of his band forged ahead, becoming Raven and adding a decidedly forward-looking fusion of elements to their bluesy core. Veteran Szelest sidemen drummer Gary Mallaber and bassist Tom Calandra merged with singer Tony Galla, pianist Jim Calire and guitarist John Weitz, and things started moving quickly. By 1969, Raven had toured England, come to the attention of Apple Records via George Harrison, turned down an offer from that label in favor of a deal with Columbia Records and grown into an underground legend on the East Coast touring circuit.

Though Raven never took off in a major commercial manner, the band's influence remains an enduring one. The group will reunite as Raven returns for a pair of highly anticipated shows inside the Tralf Music Hall (622 Main St.) at 8 tonight and Saturday. Although bassist and revered Buffalo music scene presence Calandra passed away in 1998, the surviving members of Raven -- Mallaber, Galla, Weitz and Calire -- are all on board for the reunion shows. Tickets are $25 to $28. Visit www.tralfmusichall.com for information.

>90 Miles of music

Musicians, once they get to a certain level in their artistry, can't help but view the world in an unconventional manner.

The common conception of cultural and sociopolitical "borders" starts to appear a bit dubious to them. The reason for this is simple -- music itself, in its purest form, does not acknowledge borders, colors of skin, religious identity or even economic realities. A musician might find himself or herself in a "foreign" country, unable to speak the language well enough to order a beer and a sandwich. But if that musician stumbles upon some dude plucking away at an exotic stringed instrument on a dusty street corner in the middle of a bazaar, he'll be able to communicate with that musician on an elevated plane, simply through the act of playing with him. It's as if music is a meta-language or a language that transcends language itself.

Last year, a trio of renowned jazz musicians put this theory to the test. Vibraphonist Stefon Harris, saxophonist David Sanchez and trumpeter Christian Scott number among the hottest "young guns" in modern jazz. Even before they had decided to attempt to form a cross-cultural fusion of music with some of the finest jazz pianists in Cuba, the three already exemplified the manner in which music can soar above perceived cultural canyons.

Harris was born in Albany and attended the Manhattan School of Music; Sanchez is a native of Puerto Rico; Scott is a son of the bayou, a product of the musical melting pot that is New Orleans. Somehow, when the three began talking about playing together, the common denominator seemed to be an Afro-Cuban or Latin bedrock.

After hearing the Cuban jazz pianists Rember Duharte and Harold Lopez-Nussa, producer John Burk enlisted Harris, Sanchez and Scott and hatched the plan to make the trip to Cuba -- the 90 miles separating Key West, Fla., from Cuba giving the band and the project its name -- in the hope of finding common ground with their Cuban counterparts.

The result is an album -- and accompanying documentary film -- that is not only one of the most exciting jazz projects in recent memory, but is a testament to the manner in which music can celebrate our shared humanity and disregard the social, political, cultural and economic factors that alienate us from each other.

None of this would mean as much as it does if the music Harris, Sanchez and Scott made with Duharte and Lopez-Nussa wasn't such a transfixing, fluid and inspired marriage of traditional Afro-Cuban clave rhythms, the blues/soul/jazz melange of New Orleans music and the inspired improvisation -- both collective and solo -- that marks all great jazz.

Burk worked for more than a year to acquire permission from the U.S. government to travel to Cuba for a performance in May. "Ninety Miles" documents the rehearsals and the gigs. It's one of the most exciting musical marriages of recent times, as both the disc and film attest.

The band 90 Miles performs at 8 p.m. Saturday in the Bear's Den of the Seneca Niagara Casino, Niagara Falls. Tickets are $25 to $35 (casino store, Ticketmaster).

Join me for my live chat at noon today on the Gusto blog at www.buffalonews.com.

e-mail: jmiers@buffnews.com

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