Dizzy Gillespie: Guarachi Guaro

Out of the studios for over a year due to a recording ban, Gillespie's band came back with a roar, starting with this Machito-like collaboration written by Diz and Chano Pozo. The percussionist was murdered earlier in the month, and it is Sabu Martinez who leads the singing while the band answers him. The montuno that follows is built by orchestral layering, finally exploding in swing. Gillespie used this as a concert opener during 1949, beginning the piece with extended trumpet and percussion solos, and Gerald Wilson later recorded this with a pickup orchestra in California, taking up two sides of a single record. An excellent example of what was called Afro-Cubop, a piece that has equal elements of bop and Latin big band music.

July 10, 2008 · 0 comments

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Cal Tjader: Maramoor Mambo

Cal Tjader fell in love with Latin music early in his career, and from 1954 to his death in 1982 primarily led Latin jazz groups, with many of his fans assuming understandably but incorrectly that he must be Latino. The authenticity of Tjader's style, and his use of such top Latin percussionists as Ray Barretto, Willie Bobo, Armando Peraza, Poncho Sanchez and Mongo Santamaria, placed him at the forefront of the Latin jazz scene, and his music even influenced the later Latin-rock creations of Carlos Santana.

The short title track of his Soul Sauce album was as close as Tjader ever came to a hit record, but the longer "Maramoor Mambo" from the same session better highlights his distinctive metallic sound on the vibes and his relaxed, flowing and rhythmically engaging improvisational approach. Peraza's catchy mambo opens with hearty conga accents and firm piano chords as Tjader navigates the buoyant melody before surging into his driving solo, where Hewitt's montuno backing is a perfect complement. The pianist, a veteran Tjader sideman, follows the vibraphonist with his own dancing solo, displaying an appealing delicate touch and a spirited percussive attack.

"I'm not an innovator," Tjader once said. "I'm not a pathfinder. I'm a participant." Entertainer would be a better word, as Tjader left behind a body of work consistently joyful, unassuming and ingratiating.

July 03, 2008 · 0 comments

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Arturo O'Farrill and the Afro-Cuban Latin Jazz Orchestra: Humility

The track may be called "Humility," but this band has no need for false modesty. Led by a 2nd-generation Latin jazz master (Arturo's father is the celebrated Chico O'Farrill), the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra is a top- notch ensemble, combining strong charts with solid musicianship. Here the band tackles a Tom Harrell chart, which starts at a simmer with minimalist percussion and thick Kentonian chords. But shortly after the 1½-minute mark, the pot begins boiling over. Trumpeter Jim Seeley offers up a fluid and dynamic solo, prodded all the time by throbbing and rumbling horns in the background. But the performance hits its high point with a gripping trumpet and percussion interlude right before the return of the melody.

May 22, 2008 · 0 comments

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Ahmad Jamal: Buenos Aires

This was recorded after Israel Crosby and Vernel Fournier went over to George Shearing, and it’s clear that Ahmad Jamal had no problems regrouping after Israel’s and Vernel’s defection. I think it was a brilliant move by Ahmad to have his next recording be a huge departure from the trio format. This hearkens back to Ahmad Jamal’s days with the George Hudson Orchestra in the 1940s. He’d always claimed to be uncomfortable in an orchestra setting, but this totally disproves that—or he just got better at playing with orchestras. It seems as though he made a more conscious effort to play in the time, to be more appropriate with the heavy Latin theme of the date, and he’s just so supremely bad! It’s obscure, but one of my favorite Ahmad Jamal recordings.

May 09, 2008 · 0 comments

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George Shearing: George in Brazil

The producers of this CD faced a Hobson's choice. In Jazz on a Summer's Day (1960), Bert Stern's documentary of the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, the sequence "George in Brazil" runs slightly more than two minutes. Even at that, it's only a fragment of the original performance. To make matters worse, the soundtrack's first 40 seconds contain voiceovers that for technical reasons could not be erased from atop the underlying music. The dilemma, then, was whether to retain the voiceovers, to which musical purists would surely object, or trim the track to a scanty 1½ minutes. The producers elected to trim.

Bad decision. Of course, the voiceovers are still in the movie. But missing from the CD is the delightful Donna Larsen, roving radio reporter. "What do they say," Donna asks her unseen listeners rhetorically, "the joint is really jumping? I think that's kind of passé by now." If not, it became so at that moment. She goes on to interview NJF co-director Elaine Lorillard, then married to a descendant of Pierre Lorillard, founder of the Lorillard Tobacco Company. Only a year earlier, Lorillard had introduced its best-selling Newport brand of menthol cigarettes. "I brought along a heavy leather coat," gushes chatterbox Donna, "and I don't think I'm going to need it at all." Mrs. Lorillard, her upper-crust baritone hinting that she may have already smoked a few too many packs of her family's products, readily concurs. "No, I don't think so, either." Naturally she pronounces it eye-ther. "I have a sweater that I've tucked away in my bag."

Believe it or not, this banal banter is actually more entertaining than "George in Brazil," which so belabors a simple vamp that you wish Elaine Lorillard had tucked away some extra chord changes in her bag, right next to that sweater she didn't need.

April 13, 2008 · 0 comments

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Caribbean Jazz Project (with Dave Samuels): Soul Sauce

This is a song with a history. Cal Tjader had a huge hit with "Soul Sauce" in 1965. But he borrowed the song - well, it's not really a song, more like a vamp - from "Guarachi Guaro," a 1948 recording of Dizzy Gillespie with Chano Pozo. Now Dave Samuels steps in and shows that 60 years later, this "Soul Sauce" has lost none of its spiciness. The band settles in for a comfortable medium-up tempo, a perfect beat for the intro and turnaround, which are supposed to sound like a syncopated blur. Samuels contributes a tasty solo with just the right dose of funkiness. If hip songs still got airplay, this could be a hit all over again.

March 25, 2008 · 0 comments

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Tito Rodriguez: Perdido

The Tito Rodriguez band is not as well known as those of his compatriots Machito and Tito Puente, but cognoscenti will assure you that this band more than deserves a seat on the pantheon of Latin jazz orchestras known as "The Big Three." This album features standards arranged in the mambo style that made Rodriguez famous. The open form on "Perdido" allows for ample solo space, of which the guest performers avail themselves expertly. Of Brookmeyer, Cohn, Sims and Terry, it is the last whose offering succeeds most effectively in bridging the gap between the clave-based foundation set down by the rhythm section and the "straight-ahead" bebop phraseology in which they are more well-versed. Terry's attention to the placement and internal accents of his solo lines shows a true affinity for the Latin jazz aesthetic.

March 07, 2008 · 0 comments

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Danilo Perez: Hot Bean Strut

Panamonk is an exploration of the rhythmic potential in Monk compositions. Perez attests to how well Latin jazz arrangements suit them in the album's liner notes. "Hot Bean Strut" is one of four original compositions written in homage to Monk's musical legacy. The track features a rock-solid boogaloo (bugalú) beat, supplied by Cohen and Carrington, and masterful piano work by Perez. His integration of postmodern harmonic structures with an adventurous sense of rhythmic play proves not only effective but infectiously enjoyable here. Perez's solo break into the montuno section will leave many straight-ahead fans asking that perennial lost-in-translation question: "Wait, where's the downbeat?" Whether or not you find the answer, there's no denying that this is just about as good as Latin jazz gets.

March 07, 2008 · 0 comments

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Charlie Parker (with Machito): Okiedoke

Weeks after the 1948 recording ban was lifted on musicians, Clef Records producer Norman Granz brought Charlie Parker together with bandleader Machito for a four-side Afro-Cuban recording session. Dizzy Gillespie had already pioneered the Latin-jazz big-band sound with "Algo Bueno" in 1946 as well as "Cubano Be, Cubano Bop" and "Manteca" in 1947. Parker’s late 1948 Afro-Cuban sides sounded so fresh that Granz brought Bird and Machito back in January to record "Okiedoke" and three others. "Okiedoke" is significant because it’s one of the earliest mergers of jazz and mambo—a dance rhythm pioneered earlier in the 1940s by Perez Prado. Parker clearly is having a blast playing over the piston-like percussion and sax-saturated arrangement.

March 07, 2008 · 0 comments

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Joe Henderson: Caribbean Fire Dance

Joe Henderson recorded this Cedar Walton original as a testament to his growing interest in Latin jazz, an affinity that developed over the course of his life and culminated in Double Rainbow, his brilliant 1994 tribute to Antonio Carlos Jobim. Audiences had already heard Henderson experiment with Latin jazz, as in "Blue Bossa" and "Recorda-me" on his debut release, Page One. On Mode for Joe, Henderson provides an augmented front line, adding Fuller and Hutcherson to the ensemble. This allows for much richer textures, as in the polyphonic counterpoint of the melody. As in many genres of Latin music, relatively stagnant harmonic movement (here, the singular harmony of the vamp-like A sections) allows the improvisers freedom to inscribe their own structures above. It is evident from the four improvisations that the musicians took full advantage of that freedom here.

March 07, 2008 · 0 comments

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Herbie Hancock: Mimosa

One of Herbie Hancock's first records as leader features a refreshing take on the concept of "Latin jazz." Rather than making overt gestures, such as the typical guajeos and montunos that pianists normally employ when performing in this style, Hancock—both in his playing and composition—opted for a more subtle approach. Hancock aims to explore the re-centering of his performance in a "Latin" context rather than pandering to any clichéd trope of what "Latin jazz" should sound like. This track is the only one on the album that has a pre-composed chord progression, although much is left up to the moment, including the melody, which, when restated is quite different from its original appearance. Situated in such an open structure, the group's attention to the possibilities of spontaneity infuses this music with engaging vitality.

March 07, 2008 · 0 comments

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Chano Dominguez: La Tarara

This album, originally recorded on Venus Records, features Dominguez with the all-star rhythm section of George Mraz and Jeff Ballard whose rhythmic sensibilities are in harmony with this Spanish pianist, known for his explorations of jazz flamenco. "La Tarara" is a refashioned, traditional Andalusian children's song. Propelled by a bass ostinato, Dominguez explores the harmonic and rhythmic potential of this "simple little tune." While the album focuses mainly on a straight-ahead aesthetic, the juxtaposition and interpolation of this feel with seamless transitions in and out of a Latin jazz sensibility makes this a particularly rich sonic experience. The listener can tell that Dominguez is enjoying himself on this exuberant track.

March 07, 2008 · 0 comments

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Hendrik Meurkens: Hot and Stuffy

In a unique combination of bebop sensibilities and virtuosity all rooted within the confines of Brazilian rhythms, harmonica wizard Hendrik Meurkens showcases brilliant technique in a refreshingly different approach to this sparsely used instrument in jazz. With a clear nod to the tonal influence and facility of the great harmonica virtuoso Jean “Toots” Thielemans, Meurkens soars his way through this self-penned tune with Parker-like riffs. He and saxophonist Rodrigo Ursaia track each other flawlessly on this burner’s intro in a fashion reminiscent of Dizzy and Bird on some of their early bebop classics, but with a decidedly Brazilian tinged rhythm section. Meurkens establishes his credentials as both a composer and a wildly inventive player. While he also plays a respectable vibes on several tracks it is his stunning chromatic harmonica work that sets this artist apart.

February 14, 2008 · 0 comments

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Marty Sheller: The Route 44 Flyer

Marty Sheller is best known for his work as trumpeter and musical director for Mongo Santamaria. His solo feature on "Watermelon Man" resulted in one of the biggest jazz crossover hits of the era. But even with a gold record to his credit, Sheller is far from a household name. Instead he has developed his reputation among insiders who pay attention to the small print in the CD booklet. Fans and friends prodded Marty, over the years, to front his own band, and he has finally gratified them with this CD of hot charts.

As an Italian-American, I am proud to see a Latin jazz track where the soloists are named Franceschini, Magnarelli and Porcelli. (Remember, Italy was the first Latin country.) But my Hispanic roots also dig the rhythm section of Hernandez-Rodriguez-Cherico-Berrios. Mix-and-match cultures are also part of Sheller's arrangements, and even he splits hairs over the lineage. "I don't consider this to be a Latin jazz record," he comments. ""It's a jazz record with some roots in Latin music." But whatever you call it, "The Route 44 Flyer" is nine minutes of joy. The whole band plays with fire, but Franceschini's tenor solo deserves special mention.

February 13, 2008 · 0 comments

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Dizzy Gillespie: Cubano Be, Cubano Bop (aka Afro-Cuban Drum Suite)

Listed on the album as "Afro-Cuban Drum Suite," this version of George Russell's "Cubano Be, Cubano Bop" features an especially rich, improvised duet by conguero Chano Pozo and Gillespie not heard on other versions. Recorded live in France as part of a very successful European tour in 1948, this was the last time Pozo would record this seminal piece of jazz history with the Gillespie band (he was murdered in November of the same year). The composition was originally commissioned for a September 1947 concert at Carnegie Hall that was the premiere of Gillespie's new Afro-Cuban jazz aesthetic, later dubbed "Cubop." In his improvisation, Gillespie demonstrates a remarkable affinity for Afro-Cuban rhythms, which he seamlessly melds with bebop phrasing and vocabulary.

February 05, 2008 · 1 comment

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