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New Latin Albums from Santos and Sosa

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There's been a small flood of worthwhile Latin jazz albums from Bay Area artists lately. Here are three recent releases that are sure to please... all, by the way, released on the artists' own labels.

JOHN SANTOS & MACHETE - SF Bay
JOHN SANTOS & OMAR SOSA - La Mar

Both available from Machete Records, www.johnsantos.com

John Santos and his Machete Ensemble, fixtures of the Bay Area Latin jazz scene for nearly two decades, have always shown a strong sense of history. In their last recorded outing, Tribute to the Masters , that respect was front and center. S.F. Bay , the group's sixth album, is also all about roots. But this time the influences are much more personal, as the group honors not only past masters, but friends, places, and the music itself.

S.F. Bay is easily the most danceable of the group's albums, with a party vibe running through many of the mambos, rumbas, salsas, and other rhythms that make up the 14 tracks. One of the most infectious numbers is "Café Con Leche," which succeeds on all fronts. The layering of rhythms and horns is remarkably tight, with special attention given to the trombones of Wayne Wallace and guest musician Raúl Navarette, as well as Orlando Torriente's improvisational, sometimes scat-like, vocals.

Of the personal tributes, three stand out. "El Afrokán," in honor of the late Pedro Izquierdo, is a surprisingly angular instrumental jam employing a modified version of Izquierdo's invention, the Mozambique rhythm of Cuba. "Chano Pozo," based on the late Mongo Santamaría's own nod to Pozo, the Latin jazz pioneer, is a deep, almost ritualistic rumba with lighter, jazzier breaks. On this track, Melecio Magdaluyo puts aside his saxophones in favor of clarinet, for a wonderful effect. While Magdaluyo's sax work is strong throughout (especially his aggressive soprano on "Lala") it's a shame he didn't use the clarinet a little more often.

Most striking of all the tributes is "Descarga Fajardo," an on-the-spot invention of Wallace and timbales player Orestes Vilató. The pair could not have known that when they were honoring their guest flautist, 80-year old master José Fajardo, it would be one of his final recordings. Fajardo's playing is lovely, winding over and through the band's spontaneous urban vibe. It is the perfect tribute; not just a remembrance of greatness, but a demonstration.

Two more guest musicians (there are 15 guests overall on S.F. Bay ) also put their stamp on the album. Omar Sosa, Santos' longtime friend and collaborator, masterfully weaves piano and marimba into the deep percussion of "Que No Se Muera el Tambó," while Quique Dávila almost steals the show with his accordion and vocals on "Cuanto Mas Sufrirás," a refreshing, folksy excursion into the Puerto Rican plena style.

Despite the long roster of guests, Machete is no studio-assembled pickup group of all-stars. It's a long-running, working ensemble, with the sort of simpatico vibe and mutual respect that only a group of friends can achieve and project through a recording.

That same respect creates a very different atmosphere in La Mar , the second duo album by Santos and Sosa. From the opening minutes, which combine scattery piano lines and sung chants with the tinkly sounds of children's toys, it is clear that La Mar is primarily about discovery.

Sosa's piano chops are simply outstanding, and are displayed to full effect against minimal settings of hand percussion and simple vocals. Sosa's ability to sense subtle changes in the atmosphere and completely alter his playing in response creates a feeling of excitement and wonder, as the listener is pulled gently along from rhythm to rhythm and emotion to emotion with no clue as to what will come next.

Santos, free of the constraints imposed by large ensemble arrangements, is equally vital. Employing a wide range of percussion — sometimes just the rustle of a chékere or maraca, other times the soothing rumble of an ocean drum or pulse-quickening bongos — he grounds the music while spurring it forward, filling in the vivid landscapes sketched by Sosa.

As on S.F. Bay , Santos shows a knack for rounding up outstanding visiting musicians and making magic with them. Guillermo "Negro" Triana adds an authentic voice of old Cuba to several tracks, Andy Narell's steel pan work enriches the fascinating crazy-quilt of melodic percussion that makes up "Abuela," and Maria Márquez creates mystery in the spiritual title tune.

It is that spirituality which unifies the nine diverse tracks into a coherent whole; for while each takes flight into unexpected territory, in the end they are all yearning for the same center. La Mar is an exceptional journey into the very heart of being.


MARK LEVINE - Isla

Available from Left Coast Clave, www.marklevine.com

Pianist/educator Mark Levine is a master of straight-ahead style Latin jazz. The members of his Latin Tinge quartet all share his orientation towards modern bop while able to lay down a pretty mean clave beat. On Isla , the group tackles compositions by Cedar Walton and Kenny Garrett as well as standards of both the Latin and popular songbook variety.

In Garrett's "Ain't Nothing But the Blues," the tempo is relaxed and the mood is cool. Levine's playing here is sweet and soulful, while the percussion duo of Michael Spiro and Paul van Wageningen produces a sturdy rhythmic structure. Dizzy Gillespie's "Con Alma," is bracketed by excerpts from a traditional Vietnamese tune. And "Tea For Two," that oldest of chestnuts, is effectively transformed into a vehicle for Levine's smoothly gliding lines. These are typical of this outing, which overall is less aggressive than Levine's previous release, Serengeti.

The only real burner on the disc is Walton's "Black." This is also one of the most engaging cuts, as it offers large tracts of space to the hot percussion as well as to Levine's rich chords and dizzying flights of fancy.

The group receives some additional support from Harvey Wainapel, who contributes a moody clarinet line to "Isla" and a lyrically reflective soprano saxophone to "Seis Pa'Chuito." These help to break things up, but also expose the disc's missing element. A little more variety would make the disc better suited to intensive listening. For most real-world listening situations, however, Isla is a finely produced album that should have broad appeal.


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