To hear label founder Joachim "Jochen Becker tell it, he became enamored with Latin jazz in more ways than one. "In the summer of 1978 I fell in love with a beautiful woman from Puerto Rico...I am proud to report that she is now my wife and mother of our four children....and I am of the opinion that in the current framework of jazz, Latin jazz is really the most exciting thing that is happening right now...Latin jazz is really where it's at as far as jazz is concerned, particularly in NYC.
Simply characterizing ZOHO as the place to go for new NYC Latin jazz, however, diminishes the catalogue's breadth and interesting forays into other genres. Take for example, two releases that pair unique female voices with superb NYC musicians: Let Yourself Go has Judi Silvano singing a program of standards with a little big band while Simone Kopmajer's ode to Romance has this delightful vocalist lovingly portraying her subject with a voice that touches your heart. As Becker maintains, "...what binds all the releases together is that they have some sort of NYC connection, either by the artist living here or by frequently performing here or by somehow otherwise expressing that urban vibe. The position that ZOHO occupies is like a postcard from NYC.
Likewise, ZOHO has not been afraid to record musicians who are masters of their craft regardless of jazz genre, a practice that has led to some of its most excellent offerings. High among these is Sunny Jain's Mango Festival, an Eastern jazz fusion that is its own genre. According to Becker, Jain "...is at the vanguard of a whole new South Asian thing that is developing right now...we really wanted to participate in this as we feel that is an ever more important facet of what is happening in the NYC jazz scene and a very interesting counterpoint to the Latin pieces.
A soprano sax's combination of speed and tone sets it apart and Dave Liebman's ZOHO releases show two sides of one of the best. Manhattan Dialogues pairs Liebman with pianist Phil Markowitz for an improvisatory triumph. The versatile quartet format of of In a Mellow Tone has Liebman at the center of a program of primarily originals that includes the warm bop tones of guitarist Vic Juris. Juris' own wholly original session Blue Horizon also bears checking out for its wide ranging format with vibraphonist Joe Locke. The burnin' sound of a Hammond B3/ guitar combo that has recently found itself so popular again in NYC is represented by recordings from guitarists Greg Skaff and Richie Hart. The former's bluesy Ellington Boulevard is filled with down home chitlin' circuit gems while the latter's Greasy Street, complete with guest appearances from B3 patriarch Dr. Lonnie Smith, features Hart's expert guitar stylings, magically finding the bossa in a tune like Coltrane's "Naima .
ZOHO is also providing an outlet for unique projects with a Latin twist by established artists. The late great Chico O'Farrill's contribution to Latin jazz as a songwriter and bandleader is still being felt. Trumpeter Jim Seeley, who played in the Chico O'Farrill Orchestra, has partnered with Chico's son, pianist Arturo, to release The Jim Seeley/Arturo O'Farrill Quintet. Arturo's own Live in Brooklyn is hotter than hot and catches him with his trio on smokin' reinterpretations of Ellington, Monk, Silver and Shorter with bassist Andy Gonzalez and drummer Dafnis Prieto. Prieto, himself a young Latin jazz force to be reckoned with, has two discs on ZOHO: About the Monks is his strong debut as a leader with all self- composed music and his latest release Absolute Quintet features a string section of violin and cello and a guest appearance from altoist Henry Threadgill. It is hard to argue with Becker when he says "There are two artists that we are very happy to have on our label that I think will really shape Latin jazz in the next 10 to 20 years: one is Dafnis Prieto and the other is Arturo O'Farrill.
ZOHO's younger artists are certainly at the cutting edge of Latin jazz but two new releases from more veteran musicians also entice. Released just last month, Funky Cha, is the second label offering from Harvie S, using a hotter-than-hot rhythm section consisting of drummer "Beaver Busch, conguero "Chembo Corniel and percussionist Ernie Colon to generate a full-speed-ahead success. The world of Latin jazz is still mourning the recent passing of its great conguero and gentleman Ray Barretto. ZOHO is preparing his last recording, Standards Rican-ditioned, for a summer release and it is already the label's most highly anticipated album. For this date, Barretto tapped his son Chris to perform on alto sax along with the finest Puerto Rican musicians in the business: pianist Hilton Ruiz, David Sanchez on tenor, trombonist Papo Vazquez, bassist John Benitez and Adam Cruz on drums. Becker discusses this important recording, "Ray and I got together last summer...and he had a particular idea in mind...he wanted to put a Puerto Rican All-Star group together and have them play material that they never had played before... standards from the '40s on the straight ahead side. This is really a record in the style of a '50s blowing session. In my humble opinion this is one of Ray's greatest records ever. We have a very lively and stunning musical statement here. With its keen eye to the future and healthy respect for tradition, ZOHO more than delivers its promise of "Latin/jazz with a New York vibe .