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Chembo Corniel: Afro-Blue Monk

Steve Bryant By

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Nuyrican conguero Wilson "Chembo" Corniel is a member of the Afro-Latin New Wave, and has been making quite a name for himself as an accomplished composer and bandleader. Raised in Brooklyn, Corniel developed and honed his prodigious skills in the musically rich environs of the New York Latin scene. He performed with giants of Latin music including Tito Puente and Machito, as well as the stars of the Fania Records label. Not wanting to limit himself to the Latin dance music circuit, Corniel traveled to the source, Cuba where he studied with the Godfather of modern Afro-Cuban jazz, Chucho Valdes.

While in Cuba Corniel not only studied performance and composition, but immersed himself in the Yoruba/Afro-Cuban cultural rituals. Upon returning to New York, Corniel concentrated on playing jazz, and gained renown for his original mix of Afro-Latin rhythms and American bop with his group Chaworo (Yoruba for "bells"). On Afro-Blue Monk, his follow-up to the Grammy-nominated Things I Wanted To Do (Self Produced, 2009), Corniel plays homage to two of his musical heroes, pianist Thelonious Monk and percussionist Mongo Santamaria. The album is an exciting mix hard-bop and Afro-Cuban ritual, which showcases Corniel's impressive eclecticism. For this date Corniel brings in Chaworo, which includes Afro-Cuban pianist Elio Villafranca—a musical force of nature who is one of the most dynamic players to ever come off the island. Corniel starts off the set with "Emiliano" a Villafranca tribute to the late, great Cuban pianist Emiliano Salvador. The tune starts off with interplay between Corniel (on bata), Villafranca and tenor saxophonist Ivan Renta, and continues with a lyrical exchange between Villafranca and Renta. "Afro-Blue" features original lyrics sung by Samtamaria's daughter Ileana, a soaring turn on soprano by Renta and some serious bembe by Corniel (again on bata) and Villafranca.

A lot of Latin cats dig Monk. Maybe it has to do with the fact that his tunes lend themselves to clave and are compatible with Afro-Latin rhythms. Corniel's own unique take on "Blue Monk" comes with an added treat: a rare appearance by trumpeter Jimmy Owens. The head is played straight by Owens and Renta, then goes off-track, with Owens playing off the changes and Renta and Corniel blasting off into mambo land, with Villafranca laying down some killer tumbao.

The sleeper on this date is Villafranca's "Don Quijote," which showcases the pianist's prodigious writing and performance skills. The tune features lively interplay between Villafranca and Renta, over a bomba from Corniel. The set ends with another totally original rendition of saxophonist Wayne Shorter's "Deluge," performed over a bata bembe by Corniel, master percussionists Roman Diaz and Diego Lopez.

With Afro-Blue Monk , Corniel fronts a first-rate ensemble. However, the revelation here is Villafranca, a dynamic pianist who has been working in obscurity too long. He emotes an expressive, emotional quality enhanced by his technically brilliant approach to the keyboard and his rhythmically complex original compositions. Add this CD to an already superb list of recordings by a master percussionist.

Track Listing: Emiliano; Afro-Blue; Hey It’s Me You’re Talking To; Danzon Del Invierno; Blue Monk; Claudia; Don Quijote; Deluge.

Personnel: Wilson "Chembo" Corniel: congas, bata, percussion; Ivan Renta: tenor and soprano saxophone; Elio Villafranca: piano; Carlos DeRosa: bass; Vince Cherico: drums, guiro; Ileana Santamaria: vocal; Frank Fontaine: clarinet, flute; Oguduardo Roman Diaz: bata iya; Diego Lopez: bata itotele.

Title: Afro-Blue Monk | Year Released: 2012 | Record Label: Chasm Records


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