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Leo Blanco: Africa Latina

Mark F. Turner By

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The ubiquitous expression that is "world music" is becoming less relevant as musicians across the globe speak a common language that embraces varied cultures and people. Pianist, composer, and arranger Leo Blanco emphatically proves the point on Africa Latina, a mesmerizing recording that explores the unique connection between African and Venezuelan music.

Whereas the similar recording by pianist Omar Sosa's Across The Divide: A Tale Of Rhythm & Ancestry (Half Note, 2009) spoke of Afro-Cuban and American music, Blanco masterfully incorporates the folkloric sounds of his Venezuelan homeland with its exotic percussion, ethnic vocals, and a modernist stance that is captivating.

A splendid pianist, Blanco's academic training is heightened by improvisational skills honed by sharing the international stage with both classical orchestras and noted jazzartists. For this recording, he makes good use of his facilities with a band that includes guitarist, Lionel Loueke, saxophonist Donny McCaslin, drummer Antonio Sanchez, and a fine host of others such as singer Heeidi Rondon.

Blanco's writing is the catalyst, orchestrating a multi-colored tapestry of sound. "Caraballeda," named after a small Afro-Venezuelan village, begins as a blues-like shuffle then morphs into a sweet pocketed tempo with its abundant percussion and smooth keyboards swaying within an infectious dance pattern. "Serendepity's" ebullience is filled with African call and response chants from Rondon's poetic voice and Loueke's earthy Benin (West African) dialect.

The pianist's hypnotic ostinato pattern fuels the unforgettable "Gaita," elevated by Victor Cruz' duel gaitas (male and female Colombian flutes). The dramatic "Peru Lando" (Afro Peruvian) contains seductive rubato, propelled by sinewy bass work and Blanco's inquisitive keys.

There are haunting tracks like "Afro East" and "Yemen," spirited by a variety of exotic instruments—Ethiopian (harp and flute), Ocean drums, Tibetan bells, and Angklung, each meticulously yet freely incorporated throughout.

The last three tracks are more mainstreamed in Afro-Latin jazz. The title is a groovy quintet number with Blanco bringing the heat via frosty Fender Rhodes as more coals are put on the fire by McCaslin's ever impressive tenor and Sanchez' demonstrative traps. It's followed by some modal fireworks on "Long Term" and culminates nicely with "Venezuelan Rhapsody," another upbeat track highlighted by McCaslin's reedy solo and Blanco's encyclopedic pianism.

Enthralling and enlightening, Africa Latina succeeds on many levels with music that breathes and moves with new persuasions.

Track Listing: Caraballeda; Serendepity; Gaita; Peru Lando; Afro East; Yemen; Africa Latina; Long Term; Venezuelan Rhapsody.

Personnel: Leo Blanco: acoustic piano, Fender Rhodes, synths, percussion; Lionel Loueke: guitar, voice (1, 2); Donny McCaslin: tenor saxophone (1, 2, 7, 9); Peter Slavov: double bass (1, 2, 7, 9); Antonio Sanchez: drums (1, 4, 7-9); Bakithi Kumalo: electric bass (2, 5, 6); Didier Malherbe: duduk (1, 5); Steve Shehan: percussion (1-7); Jackie Rago: percussion (1, 5); Diego Alvarez: percussion (4); Victor Cruz: Colombia gaitas (3); Martin Vejarano: percussion (3); Roberto Cachmuel: Andean flutes (4); Setegn Atenaw: Ethiopian fiddle (5); Minal Bezu: Ethiopian flute (5); Sully Imoro: chants (5); Billy Drewes: bass clarinet (8).

Title: Africa Latina | Year Released: 2009 | Record Label: Ayva Musica


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