On many levels, The Conga Kings’ Jazz Descargas
is authentic Afro-Cuban jazz.
For starters, Carlos “Patato” Valdes and Candido Camero have been Afro-Cuban music pioneers for decades. Patato is recognized as one of the first to tune his congas to a song’s dominant chord, which contributes harmony to the song’s melody as well as to the rhythm of a song (noteworthy because there is no piano, and therefore plenty of melodic space, on Jazz Descargas ), and has played with Art Blakey and Dizzy Gillespie. Camero has contributed Latin punctuation to groove sessions by Gene Ammons, Kenny Burrell, and even Tony Bennett (on the unique The Beat of My Heart, which featured the singer against a backdrop consisting of only percussion with the occasional wind instrument). Partnered with Giovanni Hidalgo, an alumnus of Gillespie’s United Nations Orchestra, the combined influence of these three congueros on Latin Jazz has been profound. These three really could be The Conga Kings.
Jazz Descargas also authentically cross-pollinates Afro-Cuban music with Jazz, thanks mainly to improvisations and solos from Phil Woods on also sax, Jimmy Bosch on trombone, the bittersweet trumpet player known as Chocolate, and other featured soloists, plus a set list that reads like a Latin Jazz primer: Bud Powell’s “Un Poco Loco” and Ellington’s “Caravan”; Dizzy’s bop classic “A Night in Tunisia” and, with a touch of Chano Pozo, “Manteca”; and “Oye Como Va,” composed by Tito Puente but known to its second generation as a scalding Carlos Santana electric guitar workout.
The empty piano chair leaves plenty of room for the congas, saxophones and guitars to dish out the against-the-beat chords that pianos normally play in Latin music to spice up the rhythms, and for the congas to explore more melodic territory than usual. Guitar lines melt into and out of melody and rhythm in “Manteca,” which also boasts some fine blowing from Bosch. “Oye Como Va” unwinds at a leisurely and relaxed tempo, yet there seems to be steam coming off the acoustic guitarists, saxophonists and these master congueros as they churn the groove – they even work overtime by chanting to goose the mid-song trumpet solos by Chocolate.
The title track presents an original tour-de-force conga jam credited to all three congueros, beginning with an introduction that’s more melody than rhythm (on congas!), and steeping for nearly eight minutes just the right mixture of interlocking virtuosity and head-bobbing, beat crazy funk.
Baritone saxophonist Mario Rivera plays meaty Latin bop in “Tumbao De Tamborito,” though it’s tough to compete with its rhythmic underpinnings of congas, bells and other percussion, all hung upon a cycling bass line, that slice with power through the mix. Woods is simply a revelation throughout the hard-driving “Un Poco Loco” and especially “A Night in Tunisia,” where he assumes the solo spotlight and swings so momentously that, at a mid-song break, he almost wails with joy!
Jazz Descargas also boasts a comfortable feeling of a soulful session with musicians communing and in love with the music, perhaps because it was recorded live at St. Peter’s Church in New York City with no overdubs or even any overly experimental or complicated material. It’s just a good old-fashioned set of Latin soul.