Havana Cultura Sessions: Danay Suárez 
Album series curated by Gilles Peterson

Gilles had been recording at the legendary EGREM studios for over five hours with the core of his Havana Cultura project, co-producer and pianist Roberto Fonseca, his 3-piece band and the focal point of the day, the singer Danay. They had been in that same studio for five days, rehearsing for their forthcoming European tour, and it had been a buzzy, intense but fun time. Now the huge space had been transformed, divided up by screens and mellowed by wafts of incense to create an intimate atmosphere suited to the acoustic sessions which would appear on the 4-track Danay EP.

This last day in Havana was the highpoint of Gilles' week, he admitted, the realization of his dream to introduce Danay as a solo artist performing a fusion of jazz, soul, r'n b and Afro-Cuban hiphop. There was no hiding his admiration; "a phenomenon," he called her, "the most impressive singer I've heard and worked with over the last five years." That's some compliment given the line-up of Brazilian and British gals he's recorded.

Gilles' plan was whimsical, possibly even risky, but after five days of hearing Danay sing to the funky Afro-Cuban rumbas, lilting guajiras and heart-rending boleros, he had no misgivings. Now she was singing in a booth, into one of those 1950s locust-like microphones, her eyes closed and lost in a reverie. There was magic in the air, and ghosts of the many fabulous Cuban singers who recorded there. But now she stood alone, facing Fonesca at the far end of the studio and his playing followed and drove her singing, free-fall scatted improvisations, and rhythmic connections with the musicians. After a week of co-producing and overseeing with Gilles, he was deeply involved, like the others in producing music that linked into the Afro-Cuban traditions and possessed a spiritual element.

What's immediately striking about Danay is that she knows and exploits her natural voice. Still in her early 20s, she sounds as mature as someone twice her age. Gilles likens her to Jill Scott and at over-enthused moments, the young Billie. Her mother told her she was born to sing. Her university was the street, she says, and as a teenager, hooked into the hiphop scene and teamed up with Aldo Rodriguez, the future half of the sensational hiphop duo, Los Aldeanos. Then she joined the jazz/rock star X Alfonso. "Rap became a way of life for me," she says, "But I can switch from rapping to singing and back again."

And that's what she does. Her classical training and soprano voice offer a rich range of tones and pitches, and she creates colours like reflections in summer rain. It's one of those rare voices which shifts across many vocal identities: as a soul and R'n B singer, a cocktail jazz expressionist, a Parisian chanteuse, an instinctive improviser and a scat-singer on a par with the bebop greats. The last two qualities make her an articulate rapper,her words flowing fast, tuned to melodies and harnessed to rhythms, but always leaving space to emphasize the emotional elements. Happily for Gilles, she always dreamt of being a jazz singer.

"Hay un lugar" (There's a place) builds from slow, romantic and pensive to passion and fire and it showcases the expressive range of Danay's voice and Fonseca's wonderfully romantic side. Both exploit the use of space brilliantly. Her fading notes make way for a typically impassioned, classically-based spree which dims to offer glimpses of her soulful jazz character.

"En lo profundo" (In the depth) is a Fonseca favourite, on stage and on record, a fabulously textured, upbeat rumba feast of drumming and chanting built around his repetitive, hypnotic piano refrain. The wild rhythmic cross-currents are a background to his haunting howling to the gods while Danay reaches into new, deeper textures, chants in fragmented words and soars wordlessly like a shamanic soul singer. "These songs are pure R'n B," Gilles grins.

"Guajira" is the most conventional, familiar and lyrical song on the disc, a country classic style beloved of the Buena Vista repertoire, and now constructed around a classic Fonseca riff. It shifts from light Latin jazz into a salsa mood and with Ramses Rodriguez' woody timbales rim-shots echoing through the piece, raises thoughts of dancing – and the roofs at Fonseca's live gigs. But here, it also responds to Danay's tender singing, seemingly to a lover.

"Ser o no Ser" (To be or not to be), this most sophisticated song in the collection showcases every musician in the band. From the repeated title riff, the pianist breaks loose with dazzling, emotional effect. This is a complex, almost conceptual piece involving intricate, lyrical solos from every instrument, and sees Danay flitting through her vocal repertoire. When Fonseca announces the familiar refrain off the instrumental "Drume negrita" on his 2009 album, "Akokan," she picks it up, whispering "Drume negrita (Sleep, little black girl)" in a lullaby popularized by Celia Cruz. It becomes soporific, even meditational and as the baby sleeps, fades into dreamtime.

With the band sitting silently in the control room after that final song, a 21-minute gem, Gilles whispered, "Let's leave it as it is." They did.

An hour later, with Danay on the bus home, Roberto in his baby Fiat, and Gilles in a taxi to the airport, dream fulfilled, he tweeted "Just recorded Danay album at Egrem studios, Havana – remarkable, deep, spiritual Cubano jazz, one of the true highlights of my life."

Sue Steward, October 2010, England.