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Latin Jazz to Warm Your Winter

Chris M. Slawecki By

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Fueled by the passion of three drummers and dedicated to the spirit of the drum in Cuban music,
Maybe it’s the insidious impact of its generally sunny climates, but Latin jazz, in its many forms, seems to project a sense of warmth. Faced with the prospect of a new winter’s chill, it’s comforting to rediscover in new Latin jazz releases that the source of this heat remains an eternal if occasionally flickering flame.

Caravana Cubana: del alma (Warner Music Latina)
This all-star Cuban ensemble originally congregated in 1999 to record Late Night Sessions. Star power from that first set remains in full effect on this, their second release: Voices from the a cappella group Bambaleo, pianists Joe Rotundi and Jesus Chucho Valdés, and flutist Orlando “Maraca” Valle return, joined by first-timers pianist Cedar Walton, vocalist Bobby Carcassés, and percussionists Los Papines, with Michael Turre featured on trombone, saxophones and flute.

(Read more about Late Night Sessions on AAJ.)

“del alma” translates to “of the soul,” an accurate description of these passionate Afro-Cuban sounds. Fueled by the passion of three drummers and dedicated to the spirit of the drum in Cuban music, “Seis por Chucho” blossoms into a vibrating percussion jungle through which Valdes’ piano dances as a mysterious, shadowy leviathan, more felt than seen. “Calabazón” blows an Afro-Cuban big-band comparsa of hurricane force, with howling echoes of Dizzy Gillespie in its sharp, incisive trumpet lines, while “Sal Ya del Monte” digs at the roots in a garden display of Cuban instrumental folk music. The frantic pace slows for an orchestral tribute, complete with violins and soft brass and featuring vocalist Bobby Carcassés, to Abelardo “Barroso,” one of the founding fathers of vocal jazz in Cuba.

del alma also includes an excellent liner booklet which provides detailed song descriptions, including annotations of traditional Cuban forms (changui, comparsa, guajira, bolero son, guaracha son, descarga comparsa, etc.) utilized in each piece and quotes from the participants.

Chano Dominguez: Hecho a mano (Nuba)
Like many of his American contemporaries, some of Spanish pianist Dominguez’ first musical experiences came from the church, where he advanced from the parish choir to serving as church organist and pianist. Since turning to jazz, he has progressively explored combining elements of modern jazz and traditional flamenco music, recording a set honoring the music of guitarist Paco de Lucia, a fellow Andalusian ( 10 de Paco ), and performing in duet with Michel Camilo at an annual gathering of the SGAE (The General Society of Spanish Authors).

This warm, classical-sounding acoustic session (“hecho a mano” translates to “handmade”) features the Dominguez trio, with bassist Javier Colina and drummer Guillermo McGuill, in small ensembles with at most two or three additional pieces. Their trio version of Bill Evans’ “Turn Out The Stars” as a flamenco waltz profoundly sparkles with the sound and feel of Evans’ classic trio dates – amazing, soulful and intelligently articulate instrumental interplay. This pairs up with “Bemshaw Swing,” which draws the funk from Monk by casting Dominguez’ piano against a rhythm track of clapping and tap-dancing.

Ten Dominguez originals comprise the remainder of this set. “Retaila” and “Pinar hondo” partner Dominguez’ classical Spanish piano in hot melodic dances with flamenco guitar, with legendary guitarist Tomatito guest starring on the former and the piano and guitar echoing each other’s lines like calling birds on the latter. Piano playfully creeps into “Cilantro y Comino” on little cat feet to tango with rhythmic percussion. Through Dominguez’ playing in the opening “Alma de mujer” and other pieces, you can also hear in a charming, circular way the Latin influence on pianists Horace Silver and Vince Guaraldi.

Steven Kroon: Señor Kroon (Azica)
After two decades of performing and recording with Luther Vandross, percussionist and bandleader Kroon has lately been teaming with bassist Ron Carter (including Carter’s The Bass and I and Bow Tie Blue Note sessions), who here returns the favor and whom Kroon praises in these liner notes with: “My guru and world renown bassist Ron Carter is the perfect foundation who is always there for me and who always adds magic to my music.” Kroon has also recorded with Gary Bartz, Mulgrew Miller, and David “Fathead” Newman, and appears on Diana Krall’s All For You.

On Señor Kroon, the percussionist returns to the music with which he was surrounded as the child of a father who favored Machito and Tito Puente: Afro-Cuban jams as funky and tight as a pair of shrunken hip-huggers. In Carter, drummer Vince Cherico, and pianist Oscar Hernandez (and occasionally Dom Salvador), Kroon leads an ensemble that is smart and sharp nearly to the point of studio slick. Flute (Mauricio Smith) and vibes (Steve Nelson) chiming against Kroon’s percussion often create Caribbean harmonies in these Latin voicings; their dance atop the melody to “Amigos,” for example, helps it sound like a bright and sunny, friendly island. “Belly Button” wriggles through an open playground full of solo space, especially for Carter. Sax man Houston Person stops rockin’ long enough to blow hushed and tender, cast by Kroon in elegant accompaniment, to ensure that “My One and Only Love” sounds like the classic it is. Kroon’s crew also navigates Freddie Hubbard’s energetic “Crisis,” guided by the beacon of Tim Ries’ venturesome sax.

Hilary Noble: Noble Savage (Whaling City Sound)
Noble plays percussion and saxophones (tenor, alto, and soprano) in the Latin ensemble Ascencion. Ascencion is led by drummer Bobby Sanabria, who not only plays on Hilary’s Noble first outing as a leader but also servers as producer and brought along the rest of the Ascension rhythm section, bassist Boris Kozlov and pianist John diMartino.

“It’s fairly simple,” Noble suggests. “I’m both a saxophonist and a percussionist and I’ve been hired for both as a sideman. I’ve done straight-ahead gigs, pop gigs, Afro-Cuban gigs, and I was thinking ‘How do I bring them together?’” He describes Noble Savage as “Latin free jazz,” which explores through vibrant Afro-Cuban rhythms the freedom of modern jazz in the saxophone and other lead solo instruments.

This saxman’s tenor blazes through “The Fire Next Time” and “Rumb’azul” in a firestorm that roars with the freedom and power of Ayler and Coltrane. The freewheeling sax quartet workout “Seven Effects of Highly Habitual People” is also more modern jazz than Latin jazz. “Ile-Olorun” captures Noble’s take on how ‘Trane might have approached on saxophone a traditional Yoruba vocal chant, set to a churning Afro-Cuban rhythm. Two percussion / saxophone duets erupt between Sanabria and Noble, the Afro-Cuban “Guiro Moderno” and “(N)eurotrash.

Noble recreates “Jelly Roll,” composed by Charles Mingus to honor the seminal Mr. Morton, as a traditional jazz blowing session, opening the perfect spot for guest Charles Neville, himself a member of one of the founding families of modern New Orleans music, to blow some alto, and for Koslov, who simultaneously maintains the bass chair in the Mingus Big Band, to play one of Mingus’ own basses on this Mingus tune.

El Eco: Two Worlds featuring Guillermo Nojechowicz (Dreambox Media)
A native of Argentina, composer, arranger, drummer, and percussionist Guillermo Nojechowicz graduated from the Berklee College of Music and has since instructed for the Jazz Department of the New England Conservatory while working as drummer for Danilo Perez, Claudio Roditi, Pedro Aznar and others. It’s impossible to know (without asking) if Nojechowicz has ever met Creed Taylor, but the supple, elegant sound of Taylor’s 1970s soft jazz label CTI lushly adorns this recording with Boston-based Brazilian jazz ensemble El Eco.

Two Worlds features Nojechowicz on drums with El Eco: Vocalist Kim Nazarian, a founding member of New York Voices; Helio Alves, from Joe Henderson’s “Double Rainbow Quartet” dedicated to the music of Antonio Carlos Jobim, on keyboards; bassist Fernando Huergo; and Dino Govoni, who has performed with Mel Torme, the Boston Pops, Clark Terry, Arturo Sandoval, and Eddie Gomez, on tenor and soprano saxophones. Guests Roditi on trumpet and flugelhorn, percussionist Café, and guitarist Romero Lubambo, add to the international flavor.

Among all the instruments on this palette, Nojechowicz most expertly employs Nazarian’s voice and Roditi’s brass. Soft yet strong, Nazarian’s voice often doubles the instrumentation to dance like kite tails across these airy melodies, sounding very much like Aznar’s ethereal work with the Pat Metheny Group. Her voice haunts “Fragile,” from Sting’s Nothing Like the Sun, and “Chacarera de Paloma” like a beautiful romantic ghost, and softly dusts the warm and bright “Samba de Maya.” Roditi sparkles in his showcase “La Bossa Nova de Claudio” and sounds as bright as Chuck Mangione yet blue as Freddie Hubbard in “Boa Viagem Baiáo.”

Nojechowicz’ ten originals and the Sting cover fuse the music of Brazil with that of Uruguay and his native Argentina to serve a gentle reminder that, as exciting as Afro-Cuban music may be, there’s more to Latin jazz, such as sambas (Brazil), tangos (Argentina) and candombes (Uruguay), than that. Two Worlds is simply beautiful, articulate, wonderful music.

Snowboy: Para Puente (CuBop)
Snowboy is the front name for Mark Cotgrove, the hippest, swang in’est conguero, bandleader and DJ in the UK. His eleventh album as Snowboy, and third for Ubiquity Records’ Latin imprint CuBop, celebrates and deepens the mixed marriage of Afro-Cuban dance rhythms with modern jazz that helped created the musical legend named Tito Puente.

“There are no Puente ‘covers’ on this album, and other than my tribute song ‘Puente’ there’s nothing that even sounds similar,” Snowboy notes, “but without him there would be no ‘us’ and countless other bands besides...and through this album I thank him for his precious life and the legacy that he left us.”

Snowboy’s ensemble, The Latin Section, consists of some of the finest Latin jazz musicians in Europe, including percussionist Davide Giovaninni, who wrote and sings on “Barrago” and “Rocky & Perry,” bassist Nico Gomez, Neil Angilley on keyboards and synthesizers, and trumpeter Sid Gauld. Roger Beaujolais from acid-jazz groovemeisters Vibraphonic guests on vibes and mini-moog, with his vibes assuming center stage in the set-ending “42nd & Broadway.”

Para Puente consistently throbs and shimmers with an elegant yet funky Latin dancehall feel, not pseudo- cha-cha-cha lounge chic but a more earthy type flowing with warm blood and hot passion. Cotgrove’s song “Puente” is a sparkling and likable tribute that, like its subject, just makes you want to dance. Gauld shines brilliantly, with precision and passion, in this descarga. Angilley’s “Chango Moti Awa” provides Snowboy with perhaps his most fully realized vehicle yet: It opens with congas and chants then erupts into a full-ensemble nine-minute epic with an opening and closing section that employs a melody full of “Blue Note” modern jazz, and a frantically-paced middle section scorched by hot solos from Gauld and Gary Plumley on tenor sax.

Para Puente is a fitting tribute to the legendary party-maker: It’s funky and hot, a real stone groove.


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