Mallet man Dave Samuels' career has ranged from the experimental, ECM-ish vibe of his '70s Double Image group to an artistically questionable association with the commercially viable smooth jazz group Spyro Gyra. And while those who knew just how much Samuels was capable of were more than a little surprised to see him maintain a long-term relationship with such a lightweight group, he managed to remain credible, always being critically singled out, even as Spyro Gyra itself was often dismissed.
But, while Samuels' years with Spyro Gyra might have confused his fans, as did a string of equally lightweight solo albums for MCA and GRP, he did succeed in attaining greater visibility than he would have, had he continued with his bolder work of the '70s and '80s. And so, when he formed the Caribbean Jazz Project in '01 with the debut release Paraiso, Samuels appeared to have, in embracing Afro-Cuban music, found the perfect middle ground: accessible enough to appeal to larger audiences, but adventurous enough, in its own way, to help re-establish some credibility with the cognoscenti. Fans of more oblique idioms may still find the Caribbean Jazz Project too lightweight, but the fact is that amongst the captivating rhythms and engaging melodies, there's more than meets the eye.
And while the three previous studio efforts have had charms to recommend, the new double live set, Here and Now - Live in Concert, may be the best of the bunch. Back from '02's The Gathering and '03's Birds of a Feather are pianist Dario Eskenazi and percussionist Roberto Quintero, who, along with Samuels, are beginning to forge a group identity that the more guest-laden studio releases lacked. Rounding out the sextet are percussionist Mark Walker, known for his work with the genre-busting Oregon, but proving to be a highly capable Latin drummer as well; bassist Oscar Stagnaro, who combines unerring groove with fleet-fingered virtuosity; and the outstanding Argentinean ex-pat trumpeter Diego Urcola. And while the playing is universally top notch, it's Urcola who stands out, no surprise to anyone who has heard his remarkable '03 release, Soundances, which blended newfound urban roots in New York City with his folkloric background.
It is, in fact, the way that Samuels manages to blend his Afro-Cuban concerns with other styles that makes Caribbean Project so distinctive. While Samuels' own compositions range from the aptly titled 5/4 tribute "Five for Elvin to the more overt cha-cha of "Arthur's Dance, it's his clever arrangements of Oliver Nelson's "Stolen Moments, Coltrane's "Naima, and Monk's "Bemsha Swing that really show the height of his invention, making them fit seamlessly within the overall groove-centricity. And with the excitement of live performance making every track sparkle, Here and Now perfectly combines adventure with accessibility. It's hard not to like. It looks as though Samuels has finally found the perfect middle ground between reaching a wider audience and maintaining greater artistic integrity.