Salsamba is the best Latin jazz group you’ve never heard. Don’t expect to immediately find them on tour all of a sudden, though. In today’s economy and in the music biz in general, it is awfully difficult to find good gigs – and without a major record-label backing them, Salsamba has kept relatively local. I intend to change that as much as possible with this review.
Essentially a collection of local musicians with a variety of backgrounds (especially with strong jazz and rhythmic feel), Salsamba brings more than its share to the table. With the indispensable vocalist Kenia, the group does not fall short.
Their knowledge of the jazz idiom and repertoire puts them far above other Latin groups with very little chordal knowledge who just bang away on endless percussion montunas. Leader and guitarist/arranger Eric Suseoff leads this choice group of Pittsburgh musicians, each of whom contributes to the project in a unique way by bringing specialized knowledge of his or her respective instrument.
For example, anyone on the Pittsburgh scene knows that George Jones is solely a conguero. He focuses on his own instrument and doesn’t dabble in others, like so many percussionists of today. His dedication has payed off in the long run, as he is easily the most in-demand congo player in the area. That is not to say diversification of one’s skills as a musician is not wise.
Conversely, University of North Texas grad and inheritor of a rich family jazz tradition, flutist/saxophonist Eric Defade has truly done his homework on his axes. In addition to soprano and tenor sax, Defade’s flute playing has a particularly authentically Latin feel. Watch out Brecker and Lovano, here comes Defade. Check out his invigorating soprano on Ellington's “African Flower” (here as a bolero) and bluesy tenor work on Monk’s “Ba-lue Bolivar Ba-lues-Are.”
The title tune, written by Suseoff, is a "soca rhythm [which] provides a percolating island groove, inspired by his travels to St. John, Belize and Costa Rica." Cal Tjader's Curacao is an especially nice treat in 6/8. "[I] composed 'Green Forest' to celebrate a local Brazilian restaurant where [we've] enjoyed many delicious meals," says Suseoff. "'The Traveler' truly takes the listener on a journey through the rhythms and traditions of Latin jazz."
Filling out the quintet are bassist Paul Thompson and drummer John Rampolla (the only Latino member of the group). These two really fit the bill as far as salsa, samba, son, danzon, contradanza, and cha cha cha are concerned. They each bring a marked skillfulness to their instruments contributing particularly well on Monk’s "Epistrophy" and John Coltrane’s perennial shocker "26-2" (loosely based on the chord changes to the bop classic "Confirmation"). Thompson’s well-tempered bass-lines on the “ands” of the beat usher in an authenticity only to be matched by the greats (see "Way of the Serene" for bass chops). The whole group just really grooves.
For more info including past CDs or tour information visit www.salsamba.com
Track Listing: 26-2 (Coltrane)
Ba-lue Bolivar Ba-lues Are (Monk)
The Traveler (Suseoff)
Green Forest (Suseoff)
Cubano Chant (Bryant)
African Flower (Ellington)
Mambo #20 (Suseoff)
Way of the Serene (Suseoff)
Personnel: Eric Susoeff - Guitar;
Paul Thompson -Acoustic and Electric Bass;
George Jones - Congas;
John Rampolla - Drumset, Timbales;
Eric Defade-Tenor and Soprano Sax, Flute.
With special guest Kenia - Vocals.