The coalescing of tradition and innovation in music is a powerful and wonderful thing to experience, and for this reviewer and the nearly packed house at Diana Wortham Theatre, this was the case as Pedro Pablo “Pedrito” Martinez and his tightly knit quartet took the stage.

The group consists of percussionist Martinez plus pianist/vocalist Araicne Trujillo, electric bassist Alvaro Benavides, and percussionist Jhair Sala. The group’s diversity is represented in the players’ musical influences and their respective cultural backgrounds.

Trujillo, of Havana, Cuba, is a classically trained pianist; in a post-concert interview, she cited Rachmaninoff as one of her influences. Sala hails from Lima, Peru, and Benavides, from Caracas, Venezuela. The latter musician listed a myriad of genres which served as inspiration, including the sounds of Motown, funk, R&B, rock & roll, and the traditional Afro-Cuban music for which the ensemble is best known. Martinez himself grew up in this tradition, but after spending over 15 years in the States, he has absorbed a multitude of musical influences as well, which was quite apparent in the performance at the Diana Wortham Theatre.

It was clear from the opening selection, “Maria Cervantes,” that the ensemble’s national accolades were well deserved. Immediately this reviewer noticed an effervescent fluidity within the ensemble’s rhythmic approach. The Afro-Cuban genre (and by extension, its indigenous influences in Yoruba music) treats rhythm in a paradoxically satisfying combination of relentless precision and fluctuating freedom. The interplay of triple and duple based rhythms among all four performers provided a mesmerizing cornucopia of subdivisions. This was especially apparent when Sala maintained a hypnotic and syncopated eighth-note pulse with steady assuredness while Martinez playfully inserted dynamic triplet figures. Trujillo was equally adept at fueling the polyrhythmic fire, maintaining repetitive montuno patterns with unrelenting precision as she glided across the upper register of the keyboard with dazzling speed. An additionally impressive component of Trujillo’s playing was her ability chromatically to modulate the melody in her right hand while her left hand stayed in the original key. The rhythmic acumen of these three musicians allowed Benavides to step out of the traditional role of a bassist and be more adventurous in his playing. Indeed, he marvelously filled the dual role of timekeeper and harmonic foundation, never crossing the clave (a term used when a musician plays rhythms which conflict with the clave pattern). But he seamlessly added a great deal to the music outside his instrument’s usual function, inserting embellishments, scalar runs, and harmonic extensions in tasteful ways that always served the music. Additionally, the bassist emulated the percussive sounds of a kalangu, using the fleshy part of his palm to glide across his fret board in a rhythmic pattern emulating the clave pulse. This provided a seductive rumble that greatly added to the energetic piano and percussion tones.

The second set was even more exhilarating than the first, with a wider variety of musical influences present and the performer’s virtuosic capabilities displayed more profusely. The opening number, “Drume Negrita,” began with a duet between Martinez and Trujillo. Both artists engaged in a magical introduction, their voices resonating in a musical dialogue alternating between sweet, cooing gestures and visceral vocal exclamations. Benavides took a succinct yet musically rich solo in this number, building sequential variations on the melody as Trujillo gently rolled impressionistic chord voicings across the piano. This expansive and serene number was a prelude to an exciting up-tempo vamp on the Salsa classic “Chende,” which featured Trujillo. Her melodic escapades and rhythmic variations never abandoned the hypnotic montuno groove in one of the most exciting solos of the evening. This provided a fantastic transition into an even more exhilarating guagancó, where Martinez maintained the traditional pattern while singing with bravura.

Martinez’s solo virtuosity was showcased in full when he performed a conga solo halfway through the second set. The entire solo was a freely improvised cadenza of thematic variations built on a simple yet infectious melody between Martinez’s tumba and conga. His rhythmic exploration on the quinto afforded him the opportunity to demonstrate his rapid-fire heel-toe technique, as well as his extensive vocabulary of slaps and open tones. The “talking drum” is an integral component of both the Afro-Cuban and Yoruba musical traditions; Martinez brilliantly captured this sensation in his solo.

The grand finale, an electrifying rendition of “Que Palo,” immediately followed Martinez’s solo, and represented a culmination of the ensemble’s musical mission to fuse Afro-Cuban and American musical genres. Martinez deftly combined the Afro-Cuban clave with an American backbeat by fusing a Son tumbao pattern with a half-time funk groove. This synergistic amalgamation of salsa music and funk was spiced up even more by Sala’s jocund double time bongo bell fills. Martinez also demonstrated a new form of virtuosity in the latter part of this selection, embellishing a countermelody on all three drums while singing the melody. The audience’s standing ovation was rewarded with an equally exhilarating encore of “La Luna.”

In Western North Carolina, Afro-Cuban music (or for that matter, any type of Latin-American musical genre), is hard to find. It was a rare treat to hear a world-class interpreter and his stellar ensemble perform this repertoire. Rarer yet was the opportunity provided by the Diana Wortham Theatre for Western North Carolina audiences to hear a deeply-rooted musical tradition begin to evolve in new directions. The Pedrito Martinez Group achieved the difficult task of creating unique musical concepts without abandoning the strong foundation of salsa music and did so with effortless joy. It is this reviewer’s hope that these four musical innovators will perform again soon in Western North Carolina.

The ensemble travels to Raleigh for a concert on April 12. For details, see the sidebar.