Back Home, the debut recording by composer / arranger / musicologist Socrates Garcia's Latin Jazz Orchestra, combines the best of two worlds: ardent Latin jazz that never forswears its roots, and emphatic American-designed big-band swing that provides a solid framework for Garcia's picturesque Latin / American excursions. Garcia, who was born in the Dominican Republic, is director of Music Technology at the University of Northern Colorado, and Back Home, it seems, represents more a state of mind than any physical locale, even though there are brief stops at "Calle el Conde" and "From Across the Street" in Garcia's native land, the last a part of the three-movement "Dominican Suite for Jazz Orchestra."
Garcia's compositions (he wrote and arranged every number on the album) are lively and effervescent, easily bridging whatever gap, real or imagined, that may exist between American jazz and the music of his homeland. While Latin rhythms predominate, the more well-known samba, bossa and tango are supplanted by Dominican cadences such as the bachata and merengue. As for Garcia's sidemen, most of whom call Colorado home, their mastery of his blueprint is such that they might easily be misread as emigres from Garcia's birthplace. An exception is the all-Dominican rhythm section, comprised of pianist Manuel Tejada, bassist Pengbian Sang and drummer Helen De La Rosa (with an assist from percussionists Felix "Abuelo" Garcia, Rafael Almengod, Josue Reynoso and Otoniel Nicolas). Guitarist Steve Kovalchek is added on "Celebration of the Butterflies," and Garcia plays guitar on "Back Home."
The album's centerpiece and inspiration is the colorful "Dominican Suite," which opens with a sharply drawn "Tribute to Tavito" (identified by Garcia as saxophonist Tavito Vasquez, known as "the Charlie Parker of the Caribbean"). As SuperSax did for Parker, Garcia has embedded one of Vasquez's solos as part of the composition. The second movement, "Bachata for Two," akin to a Latin waltz, was written for Garcia's wife, Wanda, while the third, "From Across the Street," recalls folk musiccalled Palos or Atabalesperformed by a woman who lived across the street from Garcia's home in the Dominican Republic and is the only track on the album with vocals (by a suitably well-spoken quartet). The opening number, "Vantage Point," is a bracing merengue whose charming melody and addictive rhythms give way to canny solos by Tejada and baritone saxophonist Ryan Middagh. The vivacious "Calle el Conde a Las 8:00," whose bright solos are by soprano Wil Swindler and trumpeter Jordan Skomal, precedes the earnest "Celebration of the Butterflies," Garcia's homage to the three Mirabel sisters who were assassinated by dictator Rafael Trujillo's government for their opposition to his regime. Tenor Kenyon Brenner is showcased on "Butterflies," as he is on "Back Home." Another splendid soloist, trumpeter Brad Goode, is front and center on "Bachata for Two" and shares the spotlight with Tejada on "Homage to Tavito."
Not only is Back Home a near-perfect blend of Dominican and American music, it stands tall on its own as a superlative example of big-band jazz at its best. Well done, Socrates.
Vantage Point; Calle el Conde a Las 8:00; Celebration of the Butterflies; Back Home; Dominican Jazz Suite for Orchestra (Homage to Tavito / Bachata for Two / From Across the Street).
Socrates Garcia: composer, arranger, conductor, guitar (4); Brad Goode: trumpet, flugelhorn; Dave Rajewski: trumpet, flugelhorn; Jordan Skomal: trumpet, flugelhorn; Miles Roth: trumpet, flugelhorn; Wil Swindler: alto, soprano sax, flute; Briana Harris: alto sax, flute; Kenyon Brenner: tenor sax, flute, clarinet; Joel Harris: tenor sax, clarinet; Ryan Middagh: baritone sax, bass clarinet; Brielle Frost: flute; Joe Chisholm: trombone; Frank Cook: trombone; Jonathan Zimmy: trombone; Guillermo Rivera: trombone; Gary Mayne: bass trombone; Manuel Tejada: piano; Steve Kovalchek: guitar (3); Pengbian Sang: bass; Helen De Rosa: drums; Felix “Abuelo” Garcia: tambura, congas, atabales, vocal (7); Rafael Almengod: atabales, tambu, vocal (7); Josue Reynoso: guira; Otoniel Nicolas: timbal; Hovernys Garcia: vocal (7); Lia Nova: vocal (7).