Panama-born bassist Santi Debriano's Arkestra Bembe is a nonet whose centerpiece is the bembe music of west Africa. During the Coronavirus pandemic, Debriano began hosting weekly bembes (musical celebrations) in the basement of his Staten Island, New York home, gradually assembling a group of musicians who would comprise the Arkestra and perform Debriano's compositions and arrangements.
The result is Ashanti, an impressive studio recording whose framework is jazz but whose heart and soul are clearly in bembe. Debriano has absorbed the celebratory nature of the music and written ten songs that give bright voice to dembe's rhythmic and harmonic temper. Debriano's teammates are with him all the way, unraveling the music's import as to the manor born. The bassist anchors an especially able rhythm section whose other members are pianist Mamiko Watanabe, guitarist Adrian Alvarado and drummer Robby Ameen.
Among the soloists, flutist Andrea Brachfeld and baritone saxophonist Ray Scro are standouts, amplifying persuasive turns by Watanabe, Alvarado, Ameen, trumpeter Emile Turner, alto T.K. Blue, tenor Tommy Morimoto and the leader himself (who has the brief finale, "Portrait," to himself). Preceding "Portrait," Debriano and the Arkestra place a dembe spin on a more jazz-oriented salute to Thelonious Monk, the quirky "Mr. Monk." The opening "Angel Heart" is an even-tempered charmer, as are "Ashanti" and "Imaginary Guinea," after which the pace quickens on "Imagined Nation," a showpiece for the ensemble with ardent solos by Debriano, Blue, Watanabe and Ameen.
"Spunky," another upbeat number, leads to funky, in the guise of "Arkestra Boogaloo," and Caribbean-style bembe, "Basilar," before "Mr. Monk" and "Portrait" wrap the handsome package. In every respect, bembe lends itself well to the fabric of contemporary jazz, and Debriano and the Arkestra present the music at its salutary and sunlit best.
Angel Heart; Ashanti; Imaginary Guinea; Imagined Nation; Till Then; Spunky; Arkestra
Boogaloo; Basilar; Mr. Monk; Portrait.
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