Missives from Distant Fronts
Electric Cowbell Records
In September 2011, Bio Ritmo, the ten-piece salsa band from Richmond (Virginia), celebrated twenty years together, no small accomplishment for a band originally formed (says its official company bio) "as a percussion ensemble brought together by two misplaced Puerto Ricans who met at art school, combined with a local punk rock drummer."
Communally led by Tobias Whitaker (trombone and composer), Marlysse Simmons (pianist and composer), multi-instrumentalist and arranger Guistino Riccio (who's been onboard for eighteen of those twenty years) and lead singer and original founding member Rei Alvarez, Bio Ritmo celebrates this anniversary with the lively and colorful selection of salsa, mambo, and cha-cha on La Verdad, all played (again from the bio) "with the mindset of a rock 'n' roll band who happens to play 'in clave'" and whose roots and inspirations not only include salsa masters but The Who, The Buzzcocks, and Stereolab.
A remarkable accomplishment, La Verdad simultaneously honors and updates the tradition of salsa. "We've always considered us students of salsa music and aimed at having a 'classic salsa' sound through our compositions," Alvarez explains, "but always incorporating an experimental approach to our method." This title track explains it even better: Chanted vocals buoyed by bouncing percussion sound quite classic, but the clavinet and other electronic sounds polish the music into a sleek modern shine while the bassist's solid metronome deeply grounds its rhythm. It's nothing less than perfectly blended salsa.
Horns blow strong and mighty in "Verguenza" but the rest of its musical magichot and liquid flowing rhythms, swirling pools of piano, the horn/percussion conversation that erupts into every horn soloing at once, and then a crackling timbales fireworks displaydefies analysis and description. It would be no surprise to learn that "Verguenza" is an honored salsa traditional, but it wouldn't be a surprise to learn that it is a new Bio Ritmo original, either. It sounds that authentic, and contemporary.
Bassist Edward Prendergast in "Majadero" and Riccio on drums in "Lola's Dilemma" (an update of one of the group's first recordings, a cha-cha from 1997) even lay down reggae, introducing one more strain to the Bio Ritmo's south of the border salsa. "Caravana Del Vejigante" dances through a more elaborate, Latin orchestral setting as genuine and incendiary as any classic Machito big band workout, polished in an arrangement that shines as bright as any Nat Adderley, Benny Golson or Oliver Nelson chart.
La Verdad is also the first full-length album released by the boutique vinyl label Electric Cowbell Records, owned by James Thomson, the aforementioned punk rock drummer and a founding Bio Ritmo member.
Deep Blue Organ Trio
Wonderful! presents the Deep Blue Organ Trio's jazz take on nine Stevie Wonder hit songs that span Talking Book (Motown, 1972) to Songs in the Key of Life (Motown, '76), plus Wonder's 1969 hit single "My Cherie Amour" and "Tell Me Something Good," Chaka Khan's breakout from Rags to Rufus (MCA, '74) by Rufus (and which Wonder never recorded).
Guitarist Bobby Broom, drummer Greg Rockingham, and Hammond B-3 organist Chris Foreman have played together for two decades and formed the Deep Blue Organ Trio, a mainstay on the Chicago jazz-blues circuit, in 2000. The delightfully named Rockingham knows about drumming with B-3 funkmeisters from playing on albums like Charles Earland's Blowing the Blues Away (High Note, 1997) and Jazz Organ Summit (Cannonball, 1998) with Earland, Jimmy McGriff, Dr. Lonnie Smith and Johnny "Hammond" Smith.)
Wonder's music provides tasty sustenance for this Trio's prodigious chops. Rockingham's second-line drum rhythm makes "Tell Me Something Good" dance and hop, while Foreman and Broom swap improvisations in blue tones sharp yet warm. Foreman slows down the verses to "gospel-ize" "If You Really Love Me" while its chorus relaxes into a limber blues strut, then extinguishes the blue embers of "My Cheri Amour" by quoting the melody to Wonder's "Ribbon in the Sky." Foreman chases "You Haven't Done Nothin'" down a different path: It opens with his testifying, solo and soulful, then strolls through a solidly funky shuffle that sounds like John Medeski auditioning for the Motown house band!