Look at the group name: it’s familiar, yet different. While this is Latin jazz, its flavors are not the usual – you get liquid synths and bomba drums, modern guitar and ancestral chants. “...[W]hile there are plrnty of jazz albums inspired by Cuban rhythms and music, there’s nothing quite of the same caliber out there for Puerto Rican music and jazz. And there should be.” Consider this a goal of William Cepeda, who plays trombone for the United Nation Orchestra. After this heady mix of influences you’ll want to hear more, and that is the point.
“Bomba Swing” opens with warm piano and synthesized strings. A funky bass kicks in, Raul Romero does a hypnotic guitar solo, and here come the horns with a theme vaguely like “Summertime”. Horns surge; solos follow from Cepeda and Slide Hampton, his sectionmate with United Nation. The bomba starts rolling (it’s a hand drum bigger than the conga) and a lively call-and-response vocal begins. This is the heart of the song, and the trumpet shouts hard to push the singers. In the end it dissolves to a bunch of soft whispers, the last being “Puerto Rico”.
“Porta Pa’l Monte” is closer to straight-ahead Latin, with charging horns, a steady popping from the strings, and a great flamenco bit from Yoro Tomo, who also plucks his four string high for chaotic effect. The piano goes to an almost-montuno as the horns bring it home. Smoky synth and wah-wah guitar offer a new horizon, as Cepeda and Omar Kabir play the shells, getting spooky as the other horns riff. Uli Gussendorfer turns to electric piano, with a riff from the ‘Seventies, and Romero’s turn carries the trend. Cepeda’s tone is rounder, and his solo tighter, than his turn on “Bomba Swing”.
“Toca Mi Caracol” (Play My Shell) begins with a barren landscape, stark synths, and lonely mollusks. The shell section starts a theme, accompanied by the horns; Cepeda and Kabir take their regular instruments and finish the line. Donny McCaslin has a great tenor solo, gaining force while the rhythm proceeds. Mark Walker’s turn takes the drums from one speaker to the other; it ebbs and flows and is joined by the shells, wailing mournfully into the night.
The urban strut kicks up a fuss on “Quasi Plena”, Cepeda’s version of a Puerto Rican melody. The moods shift nicely, McCaslin again shines, and the chorus delivers a chant, similar to one on Cepeda’s vocal album Bombazo. Michelle Rosewoman’s “For Now and Forever” shows the band at its most modern, the jagged theme coming by fits and starts, loud blasts and then silence. There’s also a warm midsection, a strong showing from Gussendorfer, and a rumply effort by Cepeda, driven home by the drums.
“Sara” is gentle and pretty; the march tempo makes it sound old-fashioned – until the bomba comes in! The main event is a trombone duel between Cepeda and Hampton; call it a draw. (Hampton’s bit has a quote of “Wee”.) “Pa’ Mi Gente” (For My People) is probably the best vocal, a shout of pride with a great chant underneath. “Colors” is straight-ahead funk, with Cepeda’s best solo – thick, strong, and pure. It also features a spot of “verso negro”, a type of spoken chant. This worked on Bombazo ; here it’s in English and sounds like lukewarm rap. The closing “Afrorican Jam: is fun: shells and organ giving way to guitar and piano, and then some swaggering horns. Kabir gets his best solo, and Romero’s is neat as the synths walk closely behind. Horns and chorus get together for a big finish, and the shell wave goodbye. I bet we’ll hear them again.