Bebo Valdes & Javier Colina: Waltz for Debby

This Bill Evans classic never gets old to my ears. With the beautiful combination of Bebo Valdes's piano and Javier Colina's very expressive and woody bass, "Waltz for Debby" is given the full-on stately treatment. Valdes glides through the introductory passages with grace before Javier Colina steps in to crank up the swing quotient. This does not stop Valdes from tossing out many lightning-fast arpeggios and extended chords that push the energy level without being needlessly flashy. Valdes was in his mid-80s when he recorded this date, and the music shows how the Cuban jazz icon had lost nothing.

January 20, 2009 · 0 comments


Francisco Mela: Benes

Composed by Lionel Loueke, "Benes" is Brazilian in mood but rhythmically located closer to the composer's native West Africa. Francisco Mela may be the leader, but this is a showcase for his guitarist. Loueke sets the tone alone with a syncopated, off-center repeating pattern. Starting with single-note lines, the Beninese adroitly transitions to a countermelody played in chords, and then back again. As he moves into the bridge, the playing becomes more fluid and his light phrasing evokes – without copying – Pat Metheny. Mela and Grenadier fill out the spaces underneath, with the leader dovetailing Loueke's syncopations and Grenadier sometimes doing the same, other times occupying more lyrical territory.

Mela perceptively saw the core beauty of an alluring melody that perhaps could have been performed easier by his full quintet, entrusting it instead mostly to Loueke. The guitarist delivers.

December 12, 2008 · 0 comments


Buena Vista Social Club: Chan Chan (Live at Carnegie Hall)

The late 1990s success of the Cuban ensemble known as the Buena Vista Social Club was remarkable from several different angles. The wide crossover success in the United States of any band not singing in English is always a cause of surprise. But even rarer is a hit album by a group of senior citizens. Add to it the global political implications of overnight stars traveling from Havana to New York to perform at Carnegie Hall, and you have all the ingredients of a made-for-TV movie.

Certainly there was more than a little hype involved in the popularity of this band. After all, these musicians had been largely forgotten even in their native land, before becoming international stars of World Music. Yet this ensemble delivered the goods onstage, as they demonstrated at their July 1, 1998 Carnegie Hall concert, finally made available on CD ten years after the event. "Chan Chan" captures a world-weary, bittersweet temperament that most fans would hardly associate with Cuban music. But these musicians had seen many ups and downs in their long careers, and something of the wisdom of the tribal elder is distilled in this song composed by the late Compay Segundo. Alas, many of the other stars of this band have now departed, but this record still makes for compelling listening long after the hype has faded.

November 03, 2008 · 0 comments


Omar Sosa: D'Son

Omar Sosa carries on with his attempt at blending his native Cuban musical breeding (which included both piano and percussion) with the rest of the Black Diaspora's culture in an all-embracing syncretic perspective. In the process he has borrowed from Northern and Black Africa as well as from the whole of South America, and from jazz improvisation as well as from European classical music. This tune is based on the Cuban danzon tradition, but is treated more in a composer's way than in a performer's. Sosa refrains from extrovert Latin licks, and confronts the poised soloing of the flute, then the flugelhorn, with the intricate rhythmic maze of the percussionists. Then his own piano soars and slowly builds a climax with few but beautifully phrased notes. Indeed, Sosa is a searching musician who will get trapped in neither his own multi-instrumental virtuosity nor the clichés of his Cuban origins.

July 31, 2008 · 0 comments


Emiliano Salvador: Una Mañana de Domingo

Emiliano Salvador never achieved the international success of other top Cuban jazzmen such as Paquito D'Rivera, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Arturo Sandoval and Chucho Valdes. In 1992, at age 41, Salvador died in his sleep of a heart attack. Valdes called him "the best pianist of his generation," and the words "Cuba's Jazz Legend" on the front of this CD's packaging are not mere hype. An accomplished drummer and percussionist, Salvador's piano playing could be intensely rhythmic and driving, and he was a diverse stylist overall, as likely to perform jazz versions of more traditional chachas, sambas, mambos, and danzons as he was to stretch out and burn on straight-ahead Latin jazz tunes.

"Una Mañana de Domingo," from his last recording, is a nearly 9-minute tour de force that encapsulates all of Salvador's power, grace and romanticism. The pianist unfurls the yearning melody slowly, veering off into tinkling embellishments complemented by resounding left-hand figures. A more reflective section ensues, before his pace intensifies and he moves into an energetic modal mindset, ingeniously adding tantalizing montuno passages here and there, his profound touch and intricate lines consistently captivating. He then plays the theme straight through before offering more brilliantly textured variations, leading finally to a dramatic and emphatic two-handed conclusion. Mix together Chick Corea, McCoy Tyner and Chucho Valdes, and you might approximate what Salvador achieves in this stunning performance.

July 22, 2008 · 0 comments


Trio of Doom: Dark Prince (live)

Very briefly in the late 1970s there was a cooling down of the rhetoric between the United States and communist Cuba. During this time, it seemed natural to promote a cross-cultural event that celebrated the music of both countries. Thus, the Havana Jam was created. In March 1979, many western musicians, both pop and jazz, visited Havana to share the stages with accomplished Cuban musicians.

Trio of Doom was patched together for this event. Its three great members represented the highest in musicianship. Guitarist John McLaughlin and bass phenom Jaco Pastorius were riding the waves of fusion stardom with the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Weather Report, respectively. They had spent some time rehearsing their short set, and were ready to go on stage. When they played, however, Jaco decided to take a different route than what had been rehearsed. The music was still very well received. But it was not what McLaughlin and drummer Tony Williams expected. They were both very angry with Pastorius. McLaughlin was so incensed that he refused to allow Columbia to release a recording of the set. Columbia and the trio eventually agreed to rerecord the cuts in studio, which versions – with pumped-in crowd noise – initially appeared as part of the compilation Havana Jam. The live versions were never released. Some 30 years after the fact, Columbia/Legacy approached McLaughlin about the live performances. Three decades is a long time. McLaughlin listened to the set and found that his mind had changed enough about the performance to allow its release. In fact, he became the producer of the reissue.

"Dark Prince" (which McLaughlin had earlier recorded for his One Truth band's Electric Dreams) is a paean to Miles Davis. Williams, who had more history with Miles than John, opens the tune with a rushed enthusiasm. McLaughlin, with Jaco doubling, introduces the catchy, chopped melody. Shortly after takeoff, the two stringed gunslingers are off at a million miles a minute on an exploratory mission. They shred as only they could. Williams supplies powerful thrusts and parries. Frankly, he sounds a bit like Billy Cobham in the process. The music seems to break down a bit during the break. Is this when Jaco went off script? At the same time, these disconnected shrieks, groans and thuds have a certain interest. Is it free jazz? Or is it Jaco confusing the hell out of John and Tony who have to play along? Either scenario is intriguing. Soon the break is over and the trio resumes its regularly scheduled programming.

It turns out that when the trio later went into the studio, John, and especially Tony, continued to have problems with Jaco. Now it is thought that Jaco was in the early stages of mental illness at the time. It was too bad for Jaco and his family. And it was too bad for the rest of us. If the timing had been right and all well with Jaco, the Trio of Doom could have become a fusion supergroup of the highest order.

February 21, 2008 · 0 comments


Gonzalo Rubalcaba: My Funny Valentine

This is a meditative reading by a 23-year-old pianist whose international career hadn't yet started. Rubalcaba is not totally fluent with the melody and seems not to take account of the meaning of the words. But he has such poetic sensitivity, and his triple background on the piano (classical, Cuban and jazz) gives him such a beautiful touch and phrasing, that one hears these qualities more than a few flaws. Rubalcaba has since become the grand pianist we know today, but it's moving to hear him in his budding period and to discover how much of his future self was already there.

February 12, 2008 · 0 comments


Carlos 'Patato' Valdes: Ingrato Corazon

This Verve record features another all-star cast that presents a rich tableau of Afro-Cuban offerings. Joining the conguero Carlos “Patato” Valdes is co-leader, vocalist Eugenio “Totico” Arango, tres player Arsenio Rodriguez, and the legendary bassist Israel “Cachao” Lopez. These musicians celebrate the sacred and secular roots of Afro-Cuban jazz with an album full of quintessential rumba tracks. “Ingrato Corazon” is a high-energy ensemble piece with solos by Rodriguez and “Patato,” but featuring the improvisatory vocals of “Totico,” backed by the members of the band singing a refrain in the traditional call-and-response format.

October 25, 2007 · 0 comments


Chucho Valdez: You Don’t Know What Love Is

As one of the most seminal figures in Latin jazz, pianist Jesus “Chucho” Valdes has been at the forefront of Latin American music innovation for over forty years. A founding member of Irakere, Valdes is one of three in a family of Cuban pianists (along with his father, Bebo, and son, “Chuchito”). This Blue Note album features reinterpretations of Cuban and American jazz standards. “You Don’t Know What Love Is” is arranged as a mambo, layered with polyrhythms and showcasing Valdes’s pianistic talent, along with an alto saxophone solo by Roman Filiu O'Reilly. Even the definition of mambo is challenged as the group settles into a funk-rock groove as the track progresses.

October 25, 2007 · 0 comments


Arsenio Rodriguez: Adivinalo

The contributions of Arsenio Rodriguez, the Cuban tres player and composer, to the development of Latin jazz have long been underappreciated. Rodriguez’s band featured innovative music, rooted in the Afro-Cuban tradition, without which modern Latin jazz and salsa would have been much different. This track is part of a compilation from Rodriguez’s best music. “Adivinalo” features trumpet and piano improvisations relying on chromaticism and “modern” jazz harmony. Along with Rodriguez, several other musicians who would become integral to the development of Latin jazz are on this album, including trumpeters Felix Chappotin and “Chocolate” Armenteros, and pianist Luis “Lili” Martinez. The percussion section drives this piece, which definitely captures the power of the Afro-Cuban tradition.

October 24, 2007 · 0 comments


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