Janine Santana: Red Clay

I'm not a big fan of Latin remakes of jazz standards, but in the case of "Red Clay", which seems forever locked into its original arrangement, changes and adaptations are more than welcome. Denver percussionist Janine Santana's arrangement of the Freddie Hubbard classic effectively straddles the line between Latin and funk, splitting up the melody between short Latin grooves.The horns get the major melodic lines up front, but later, the rhythm section plays the ascending line from the B section. The rhythm's part is so well-written that the passage is well underway before the listener grasps what is happening. Trumpeter Greg Gisbert and alto saxophonist Richie Cole share the solo spotlight with Santana. Gisbert's solo is filled with unusually-shaped ideas and spectacular passages in the high register. While it sounds like he's playing into an echoplex, the sound and late echoes are all acoustic. Cole's solo, while exciting and well-played, is considerably more restrained than his wild playing from the late 70s. Santana's brief spot offers effective counter-rhythms over the churning rhythm team. Overall, a fine alternative approach to a jazz chestnut.

October 14, 2009 · 0 comments


Wayne Wallace: Freedom Jazz Dance (Baile de Libertad)

Despite the hand-wringing and gnashing of teeth over the shrinking jazz audience, the Latin jazz scene seems to be thriving on the West Coast. In the last few days, Poncho Sanchez released his 24th album on Concord (more than a quarter of a century with the same label!); Mark Levine is garnering well-deserved airplay with his Moacir Santos tribute; and now Wayne Wallace continues his tradition of launching a hot Latin jazz release every year with ¡Bien Bien!. I don't know if it is shifting attitudes, changing demographics, or just a favorable alignment of the stars Alpha Escovedo and Tjader Centauri, but clave is clearly alive and well on the Pacific shores.

In Wallace's case, it's even appropriating new territory. Eddie Harris's song "Freedom Jazz Dance" is now recast as "Baile de Libertad." In its original form, this song always struck me as a thinly disguised practice room exercise—the kind hornplayers work over to develop facility in playing interval leaps. In other words, it's a clever melody line but somewhat contrived. Yet "Freedom Jazz Dance" finds a new freedom here. The arrangement is smart, with new harmonies, changing rhythms, and a winning call-and-response vocal. Wallace contributes a fine solo, and the rhythm section gets high marks.

October 06, 2009 · 0 comments


Poncho Sanchez: Cantaloupe Island

He is the miracle man of Latin jazz. Just breaking into the Cuban and Puerto Rican dominated Latin jazz scene was no small achievement for a Mexican-American from Laredo, Texas. But Poncho Sanchez has not only risen to a position of preeminence, but has somehow stayed with the same label for more than a quarter of a century. He now releases his 24th album on Concord. It's hardly the same label any more—new owner, new headquarters, new city, new management, even the LPs are gone—but Sanchez remains. And for a good reason: he delivers the goods, again and again, with effective charts, infectious rhythms, solid musicianship and smart song selection. Here he presents a deceptively simple version of "Cantaloupe Island," which reminds me of another standout Latin cover of a Herbie Hancock tune. But the casual listener might not notice the modulations and harmonic changes that give a fresh spin to a familiar song. Sanchez lays down a very crisp groove, and the song is ready for airplay straight out of the case. Are there still jazz stations out there looking for hip new songs to play? I'm not sure, but I won't bet against an artist who has always succeeded against the odds.

October 01, 2009 · 0 comments


Mark Levine: Nanã

Mark Levine wrote the book on jazz piano. Literally. (Check it out here, if you're interested.) Despite Levine's high profile as author of a bestselling method book, few outside of the San Francisco area enjoy the opportunity of hearing what this artist can do at the piano. Levine's playing has always been smart without becoming cerebral, respectful of the tradition but not a slave to it. On his latest CD he explores the music of Brazilian composer Moacir Santos, who passed away at 80 three years before the release of this tribute album, and whose career spanned soundtracks, sax-playing, songwriting and schooling artists such as Oscar Castro-Neves, Nara Leao, Carlos Lyra and Roberto Menescal.

This song, originally called “Coisa No. 5,” has been recorded by dozens of later Brazilian artists, from Sergio Mendes to Deodato, but the performance here reaches beyond the traditional sounds of Rio and embraces Afro-Cuban currents as well. The band plays with spirit, and manages to create a rhythmic pulse that is both hot and light—not an easy combination—with Fettig's contribution on flute standing out as especially noteworthy. Levine, for his part, has been showing off his Latin jazz skills at least since his days with Moacir Santos himself and in Cal Tjader's band. In fact, this track reminds me of something the latter bandleader would have wanted to feature with his own ensemble. Even back in the days of Señor Tjader, West Coast Latin jazz bands were proving that they have their own fresh spin on the idiom, and this release is a clear case in point.

September 21, 2009 · 0 comments


Dafnis Prieto: Si O Si

Cuban-born Dafnis Prieto has established himself with fellow musicians and a growing audience as a high-energy percussive and compositional force. Ever since he settled in New York in 1999, his jagged, complex approach to the drums- a combination of Afro-Cuban folk rhythms and the poly-rhythmic punctuations of modern jazz drumming- has been a staple of the New York City jazz scene. His compositions are inexhaustibly creative utilizing a barrage of timbres, crashes, clangs and rolls and an abundance of syncopation. The energy generated from so much kinetics can elevate your heartbeat.

On the title song "Si o Si" ("Yes or Yes"), Prieto’s particular kind of choppy, stop/start motion is featured. At the intro, he lays down a repeating drum line accompanied only by bassist Flores As the scant melody line unfolds on Valera’s piano, it becomes apparent that in addition to maintaining the complex, rhythmic beat, Prieto’s drum patterns have cleverly mimicked the melody line all along. Peter Apfelbaum smoothes out the sharp edges when his sonorous tenor is heard solo and in concert with Valera’s piano.

When Valera is given room to solo, he intuitively reaches out in a more lyrical direction, a nice respite from the song’s frenetic core. But not for long: Prieto’s fusillade of sounds prods Valera until he lets loose returning you to the cardiac excitement this music generates. Ultimately Prieto closes this composition by slowing the tempo down gradually in a surprisingly restrained refrain presumably so you can catch your breath before he starts it all again.

September 08, 2009 · 0 comments


Tito Puente: New Arrival

Recorded live in the West Village in Manhattan, when the spot was known as the famed Village Gate (now called Le Poisson Rouge), Tito Puente assembled an all-star cast of musicians that included some of the finest Latin players on the face of planet earth. Even though I was hardly twelve years old when this concert was recorded, I wish I could go back in time and attend it. It's chalked full of Latin and jazz elements. In actuality this album personifies Latin jazz; percussive elements, swing and bop inspired solos. Claudio starts things off with a captivating solo. I know you're thinking, what else would you expect from Mr. Roditi? Following next is Paquito, who always comes dressed to impress. He blazes through these changes just about as good as Cannonball would have but D'Rivera tends to squeak less and has wonderful command of the upper register of the alto.

Being a pianist, I might be biased but Hilton Ruiz runs laps around this song with his solo. It's magical! Every note he plays is the note you're supposed to play and then he tops it off with montuno phrases before the swing section and it gives the song a rich blend of all of the aforementioned stylistic elements. Hats off to Tito, you really did it on one!

August 20, 2009 · 0 comments


Tito Puente: No Pienses Asi

On this mellow jazz inspired bolero, Tito Puente shows a more sensual side with his Latin Orchestra, playing a relaxing number that features Puente playing the melody on vibes with the horns and Sonny Bravo on piano. There's not much to say about this song that can't be gathered from listening to it. It's got a nice swing section after the A section and shows Tito's affinity for jazz music. And I think that this is an important aspect to note. Tito Puente was a jazz musician regardless of what some people might say about it. His contributions to music are strong and I think "No Pienses Asi" shows his diversity along with the rest of the songs off of this album. Do yourself a favor and listen to some Tito Puente and I think you'll understand what I'm talking about. "Oye Como Va" doesn't count!

August 20, 2009 · 0 comments


Tito Puente: Pick Yourself Up

One thing you can always count on from Tito Puente is a steady mix of solid percussion, blaring horn lines and driving rhythms. No exception here as Puente lays back for his horn section to get some love on the solo section. Mario Rivera plays a bop solo filled with lines and phrasing from the old days while Ray Gonzales plays an inspiring flugelhorn solo. The real steal showing moment on this song though is pianist Sonny Bravo. He penetrates the sound spectrum with bop fueled montuno licks that spiral in and out of octaves with his right hand. This is another good song from a great album. Go get this one if you're into Tito and his spicy blend of salsa. Oh wait, they called it mambo long before they called it salsa. It's like Tito said once, salsa's something you eat. I play mambo!

August 20, 2009 · 0 comments


Tito Puente: Mambo Diablo

Tito Puente doesn't seem to get as much love from the jazz crowd as I would like to see. On his stellar 1985 album Mambo Diablo, Puente shows his grace as both the timbale master and as an accomplished vibraphonist. The title track features Puente playing both timbales and vibraphone and he takes a wonderfully, tasteful solo on the vibes on top of stating the main melody. The song doesn't start to live up to its namesake until the ensemble breaks out into a nice section of stacked fourth hits. Another nice feature about that section is the response of the trumpets, which hit those high notes that you only hear in Latin music. Pianist George Shearing plays some very thoughtful montuno figures as well, showing his versatility. All in all, I think that this song is a shining testament to the often underrated musical strength of Tito Puente after the mambo craze died down.

It baffles me why more jazz artists aren't using percussion in their recordings because the group interaction heard in Latin jazz is uncanny, heard no where else. This song adds to that statement with fire and fury as the percussion ensemble behind Puente and company provide an almost supernatural backdrop and cohesive rhythmic execution.

August 19, 2009 · 0 comments


Jelly Roll Morton: The Crave

"If you can't manage to put tinges of Spanish in your tunes," Jelly Roll Morton famously asserted, "you will never be able to get the right seasoning, I call it, for jazz." Here Jelly Roll demonstrates what he means at the keyboard with his sultry and simmering habanera classic "The Crave." Latin jazz was still in its infancy, but on the basis of this performance alone you could have predicted a promising future for this mode of trans-genre cross-dressing.

The composition is a gem, one of Morton's finest efforts, and I wonder why it isn't played more often. You could serve it up as a stylish encore at a classical piano recital or let it rip at a juke joint—it works either way. The hook comes with the hesitation in the breaks. Let's turn again to Morton's own words: "Without breaks and without clean break and without beautiful ideas in breaks, you don't even need to think about doing anything else; you haven't got a jazz band and you can't play jazz." Again he lives up to his own standards. And exacting standards they were. Let me remind you that Morton was the bandleader who pulled out a pistol at a session when trombonist Zue Robertson didn't play the boss's tune the way he wanted. (Let it be noted, for the record, that the next time, Zue delivered it perfectly, note-for-note.)

At a time when swing bands dominated the charts and war was looming on the horizon, many jazz fans dismissed Morton as a pathetic blowhard, a stale leftover from a bygone musical era. The parade has passed you by, old man. But make no mistake about it: these final recordings from the New Orleans master, and this track in particular, reveal one of America's greatest musicians at peak form—showing the way with his clean breaks, beautiful ideas . . . and that Spanish tinge.

August 12, 2009 · 0 comments


Luis Bonilla: Uh, Uh, Uh...

Steeped in a Latin tradition that utilizes the trombone in an explosive way, Luis Bonilla is true to the tradition and adds his own touch of funk for good measure. On “Uh, Uh , Uh...”, he plays with a easy, swinging swagger that is countered by the angular sound of Ivan Renta’s saxophone. This jagged, darting composition features the rapid fire drumming of John Riley, the staccato piano syncopations of Arturo O’ Farrill and the propulsive bass of Andy McKee. Bonilla negotiates the twists and turns with an exciting display of trombone virtuosity. When he and Renta play together, their combined sound creates the impression that 1 + 1 = 3. An energetic, spirited and (at times) free-form romp.

August 05, 2009 · 0 comments


Cal Tjader: America

Immigrants have been coming to America's shores for a millennium, and some witty reflections on that fact can be found in the Leonard Bernstein-Stephen Sondheim musical West Side Story. Those nice Jewish boys fashioned jazzy, semi-Latin music featuring lyrics detailing the experiences of street punks and...Nuyoricans. (Huh?) But their composer chutzpah resulted in a work of sarcastic genius-especially in the sassy number "America."

Vibesman Cal Tjader laid down his lilting cover version in 1960. Minus the lyrics, claves and sticks start the dance, Tjader shimmers briefly, a French horn trio issues the call-out, and from then on, the solo moments pretty much belong to Tjader's fleetfoot vibes and to the airy, Afro-Cuban flute of Paul Horn. The saucy back-and-forth, snap-and-strut of the original staging echoes through pianist Clare Fischer's arrangement, which contains various horn "voices." The verbal jabs and teasing comments are tamed and prettified, though, leaving light Latin music as fresh as the island's tropical breezes-any NYC immigrant dis-ease subdued if not entirely passed over.

May 08, 2009 · 0 comments


Gabriel Espinosa: Nuevos Horizontes

The music of Gabriel Espinosa is infused with the light and uplifting sounds of Brazil. On “Nuevos Horizontes”, Espinosa makes especially fine use of the melodic sounds of the two reeds and Roditi’s warm flugelhorn. In concert, they create his musical statement of expectancy and hope. Cohen does a particularly nice turn with her mellow and darting clarinet sound on this 6/8 piece that Espinosa identifies as typical of the South American style called “jarana”. The piece swells with joy as Robert takes his turn on alto and the mix of the variously timbered voices of clarinet, flugelhorn and alto combine in unified harmony. Sanchez keeps everything on track with his ever delicate but spirited playing, especially during Alves’ piano solo. Espinosa identifies this song as the harbinger for things to come in his music; his new horizons. Keep your eyes open for more from this joyful composer/arranger.

May 08, 2009 · 0 comments


Claudia Acuña: El Cigarrito

In a better world, where radio stations hadn't been dumbed down to nincompoop levels, this song would be getting significant airplay. Acuña takes an old Victor Jara song, which that master of the Nueva Canción Chilena had performed as plaintive folk music, and gives it a kick in the pantaloons. The band coalesces around Acuña's spirited vocal, and the sudden drop in volume from the hot guitar solo to the jaunty bass dialogue with staccato piano chords is one more strong hook in a performance that has as many as a fly fisherman on a two week holiday. When the vocalist returns, she will leave you breathless by moving from understated cooing to a big grooving finale in about fifteen seconds. Everything here is smartly conceived and wonderfully executed. If for some reason you think that you can't be a big league jazz vocalist and sing in Spanish, you need to check out this track and, in fact, the whole En Este Momento CD.

April 22, 2009 · 1 comment


Bobby Sanabria: Congo Mulence

There is nothing quite like the excitement and sound that emanates from a finely tuned jazz orchestra. A big band will always follow in the shadows of the masters of the art that preceded them: Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Count Basie and in this case, Machito and The Afro-Cubans. There is no end to the mixed emotions of trepidation and awe that young musicians must feel when trying to be true to such a rich and daunting musical heritage. The Manhattan School of Music Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra, conducted by Bobby Sanbria, has carried on the tradition successfully with a remarkably tight orchestra that the masters would envy.

Playing to an obviously partisan crowd at their school auditorium, the excitement generated on this live album is palpable. The band is tremendously tight and the student musicians flow through the arrangements with an ease and professionalism that belies their age and experience.

The concert celebrated the fifty-year anniversary of the original “Kenya” recording by Machito. Bobby Sanabria and the orchestra serve up a tasty Afro-Cuban dish on A.K. Salim’s blues-based “Congo Mulence”. The original recording featured Julian “Cannonball” Adderley on alto and Joe Newman on trumpet as soloists behind a bata rhythm. In this modernized version, arranger Joe Fielder uses a mambo superimposed with a bembè rhythm in 6/8 time at the intro. In front of a cha-cha rhythm, Anthony Stanco does an admirable job of playing in the lost style of the “dirty” sounding plunger-trumpet. A searing alto solo by the talented Justin Janer is played against the swaying rhythm of the band behind him. After a conga break, a Latin inspired up-tempo piano solo by Christian Sands is overlaid with precisely alternating brass and reed backgrounds in the big band tradition, building to a crescendo of sound that yields to a powerful tenor solo by Michael Davenport. A dynamic Edwards on drums and a fluid solo by Norris on bass along with a cacophony of clave, congas and bongo players keep the band in a rhythmic frenzy, followed by Sanabria on a conga backed timbale solo. The band pours it on in the last chorus and demonstrates a mastery of the complex twists and turns in the Fielder arrangement, which they execute flawlessly. At the coda, Stanco returns with a growled muted trumpet statement before removing the plunger and soaring in a high register punctuation in the finale.

April 22, 2009 · 0 comments


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