Over the past eight years, Eric Oberstein has produced six albums. Of those six albums, all but one were nominated for, or received, a Grammy or Latin Grammy Award. Capping off this run was the 2019 Grammy Award in Latin Jazz for the Dafnis Prieto Big Band’s debut album, Back to Sunset, which Oberstein produced.
What makes this run even more astonishing is that producing albums isn’t even Oberstein’s regular gig. Most of the time, you can find him in the trenches at Duke Performances, where he served for as Associate Director for years before becoming Interim Director last month. How he finds time for all of this is a mystery.
There’s no question regarding Oberstein’s ear for good music, though, particularly in the realm of Cuban jazz. His first five turns as a producer were all with the great pianist Arturo O’Farrill, whose dense big-band compositions meld Afro-Cuban rhythms with tight horn charts and unusual timbres from around Latin America. It’s no surprise that O’Farrill’s 2013 album, Final Night at Birdland, won Oberstein his first Latin Grammy, followed by a Grammy for Best Latin Jazz album for 2014’s The Offense of the Drum.
Given the caliber of Oberstein’s work with O’Farrill, it’s clear why another Cuban musician—drummer and 2011 MacArthur “Genius” Fellow Dafnis Prieto—would turn to Oberstein to produce his first big-band album. The result of three years of tireless work, Back to Sunset is a series of homages to Prieto’s forebears: Tito Puente, Eddie Palmieri, Egberto Gismonti, Art Blakey, Chico O’Farrill, Henry Threadgill, and more. Prieto’s writing is rich, multi-hued, and ever-changing, drawing on a vast assortment of sounds from Cuba and beyond. It’s a record that deserves all the accolades it has received.
Throughout all these collaborations, it has become abundantly clear that Oberstein is intent on helping to shape the future of Cuban jazz and, more generally, big-band jazz. Keep an ear out for whatever he produces next: If his streak of recent awards is any indication, it’ll be a keeper.
Oberstein wasn’t the only North Carolinian to bring home hardware at this week’s Grammys. Bill Ferris, professor emeritus of folklore and history at UNC-Chapel Hill, won awards for Best Historical Album and Best Album Notes for his career-spanning collection Voices of Mississippi (Dust-to-Digital). The set’s four voluminous discs bring together recordings of blues and gospel, interview and storytelling, and assorted documentary films that Ferris made over nearly thirty years of travel in Mississippi, encapsulating everything he strove to do as a folklorist.
As Ferris told the INDY’s Allison Hussey last year, “Everyone we meet in the course of a day has a story, a really important story, and we just touch the very top of a deep well of information, of knowledge. As folklorists, we go a little deeper, and some people deeper than others. [It’s] a way of humanizing life and enriching life.”
Correction: Dafnis Prieto is a drummer, not a pianist.