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Conguero Alex Diaz marries the heady rhythms of meringue to the harmony and sway of jazz as he pays tribute to Mario Rivera, the "King of Merengue Jazz." Rivera was an exceptional musician who played 24 instruments. Born in the Dominican Republic, he moved to the United States, and soon began playing with Tito Puente, Dizzy Gillespie and Sonny Stitt, among others. He also led his own bands, including The Mario Rivera Sextet and the Salsa Refugees. Rivera succumbed to bone cancer in 2007.
Diaz, who was also born in the Dominican Republic, came under the spell of jazz when he heard Gillespie and Chano Pozo playing "Tin Tin Deo" on the radio. He moved to New York and into groups led by Gillespie, Hilton Ruiz and Babatunde Olatunji.
Merengue Jazz King was recorded at three different times that had one common factor: all took place on February 27, the Dominican Republic's Independence Day. Given the project's lengthy history, it is not surprising that the band's line-up changes. At the end of it all, there six conglomerations make up this lively and entertaining program of five Latin and five jazz standards.
Considering that Diaz calls Gillespie a friend and mentor, it would probably have been remiss to omit a Gillespie composition. "A Night in Tunisia " has an underlying rhythmic jump, as Latin percussion sets up a bouncing line. The melody is enunciated on tenor saxophone by Ivan Rentas, whose ideas are well-fermented as he keeps the trajectory flowing, without ever indulging in pyrotechnics. Eddy Martinez ups the pulse a tad as he fleshes out the melody and with a fine turn on the bass by Alex Fernandez adding to the lore, this is a convincing accolade to the song.
"Mañana del Carnaval" is stunning, as it undulates gracefully. The swaying melody is punctuated by the horns, with baritone saxophonist Mitch Frommer and trumpeter James Zoller finding time for an intense conversation. But it is Mario Rivera who adds fire a wellspring of zest and hearty textures on a marvelous performance that underlines his artistry on soprano saxophone.
The beat of "Los Caminos" is an invitation to get up and dance. As the groove beckons, Elsa Osuna adds an expressive vocal, her voice a beacon of passion and, as the tempo switches, an uplifting and joyous magnet.
Diaz opens the window to his music by interspersing the three sessions. The approach is different, as each group creates its own patterns. In the end, the tapestry is rich and convincing in the artful melding of meringue and jazz.
Track Listing: Cana Brava; Cherokee; A Night in Tunisia; Manana del Carnaval; El Banilejo Jazz; In Your Own Sweet Way; Los Caminos; Take Five; Papa Boco; El Boss.
Personnel: Alex Diaz: conga; Luis Khan: violin, trombone; Julian Oro Duro: vocals, guida (1); Sonny Bravo: piano; Bobby Rodriguez: Fender bass; James Zoller: trumpet; Tito Vazquez: tambura; Mitch Frommer: baritone sax; Mario Rivera: tenor and soprano sax; Phenix Rivera: drums; Ivan Rentas: tenor sax; Eddy Martinez: piano; Alex Hernandez: bass; Ray Diaz: tambura; Pedro Bermudez: piano; Elsa Osuna: vocals; Papo Vazquez: trombone; Steve Berrios: drums; Ramon Azul: tambura; Arturo Sandoval: trumpet.