Unlike many who started out at the Berklee School of Musicdoing more time in the clubs than the classroomFrancisco Mela skipped the step of Berklee and went straight into the Boston club scene, working with the likes of Danilo Perez (who'd urged Mela to move from Cuba to Beantown in the first place), Roy Haynes, and fellow countryman Gonzalo Rubalcaba. So while the hype surrounding Cirio is worthy of Generation Y2K lions like Aaron Parks and Christian Scott, both Mela's performance and his compositions reflect his years in the Boston and South American jazz scenes.
Smashing stereotype even further, the fact that Mela is a Cuban percussionist does not mean listeners are in for a Latin Jazz extravaganza worthy of Poncho Sanchez or Mongo Santamaria. True, aspects of Mela's heritage are evident in much of his approach, and there are moments where Mela and some of his phenomenal support group evokes the intimate beauty of the Buena Vista Social Club; however, the bulk of Cirio comes closer to the on-the-ragged-edge sound of the Wayne Shorter Quartet. There's a distinct downtown feel to most of the set, which is one reason why Cirio is so intriguing.
The dichotomy begins when Mela's quintet launches into the opener "Tierra and Fuego." Mela's drumming includes Latin Jazz tenets, but the surrounding melody is far more experimental. The Shorter connection is made through Mark Turner, who cut his teeth at the no-nonsense alt-jazz mecca, Smalls. And as Turner takes his soprano sax lines higher and higher, Jason Moran's piano is right behind him, flashing the improvisatory brilliance that helped kick Charles Lloyd's Rabo de Nube (ECM, 2008) to a farther-flung dimension. In the end, Turner and Moran exchange fervent dialogue with Lionel Loueke, while Mela's drumming is less like Tito Puente and more like Tony Williams.
Even when Mela breaks into a mid-set series of personal trio pieces, he maintains both his probing bent and his talent for upping the drama when a passage calls for it. Larry Grenadier gets the credit here, as his trademark rock-solid foundation frees Mela to roam at will. Loueke's deep vocalizations on "Ulrick Mela" are a good contrast to Mela's high tenor on Silvio Rodriguez' "Pequena Serenata de Urna," and Loueke's acoustic finger-picking is ideal for the trio set. His own composition, "Benes," dovetails with intimate works like "Pequena" and Mela's own "Maria." What sells "Maria," though, is Moran's willingness to leave his chaotic style behind in favor of a lush, more romantic approach.
Cirio is dedicated to Mela's father, whose face (as represented by a childhood painting by Mela) graces the disc's front cover. And yet, this music was not the product of a child; rather, it comes from a veteran musician who never loses his heritage, even as he makes the outside of the envelope flex that much more.
Tierra and Fuego; Channel 2; Cirio; Maria; Pequena Serenata de Urna; Benes; Ulrick Mela; Afro Sun.
Francisco Mela: drums, vocals; Jason Moran: piano; Larry Grenadier: bass; Mark Turner: soprano sax; Lionel Loueke: guitar, vocals.