On paper, Ninety Miles was a tantalizing project from the beginning; bringing together three of the most exciting voices in modern jazzPuerto Rican-born tenor saxophonist David Sanchez, New Orleans trumpeter Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, and New York vibraphonist Stefon Harris and transport them to Havana to play with two outstanding, piano-led Cuban jazz quartets. The American red tape took a year to negotiatewhich shows a dogged determination of sorts on all sidesbut the musical connection that resulted was clearly instant, judging by the exhilarating septet interplay and inescapable grooves captured here.
Pianists Rember Duharte and Harold López-Nussa each contribute two compositions, and bring their distinctive accents to three and five of the tracks respectively. Duharte's piano riffs combine with the propulsive, revving electric bass of Osmar Salazar to bring African flavored ostinatos to "Nengueleru," and "Congo," where the pianist's wordless singing lends a rich baritone layer to the melody. López-Nussa displays a more classically Cuban feel in his piano rhythms and a cleaner, salsa-inflected sound on "E'Cha" and "La Fiesta Va." Yandy Martinez Gonzalez's acoustic bass adds to the more traditional, yet no less vibrant flavor that López-Nussa's quartet brings to the septet.
The North American trio create most of the fireworks, and throughout Ninety Miles provide plenty of inspired soloing. Sanchez' beautifully measured phrasing is lyrical and yet suspenseful, particularly on "Nengueleru." Harris' boppish solos are striking for their combination of intensity and soul. His mallets lend a dreamy ambience to the intro on "City Sunrise" and he later throws all caution to the wind with a stunning improvisation on this cracking interpretation of a Sanchez tune. On "The Forgotten Ones" Harris brings a weightlessness to Sanchez's purring lament, over Edgar Martinez Ochoa's subtlest percussion on double-headed batá drum. Scott's confident voice shines though on daring trumpet runs, most notably on "Congo," and he works wonderfully in tandem with Sanchez on Harris's impressive arrangement of "Black Action Figure."
Congueros Ochoa and Jean Roberto San Miguel impregnate the music with stirring Afro-Cuban rhythms and add quite subtle textures. Ochoa puts real bounce into "And This Too Shall Pass," setting up Sanchez for a rippling solo, and is supported by López-Nussa's percussive comping. Drummers Eduardo Barroetabena and Ruy Adrian López-Nussa's presence is more felt than overtly stated, and that congas hold percussive protagonism over drums provides one of the striking aspects of the music. All eleven musicians, however, bring strong rhythmic currents to the collective playing.
An accompanying DVD offers a sneak preview of the forthcoming documentary on the making of Ninety Miles and two pulsating live tracks from the musicians' performance in Havana. It's a shame that the Latin Jazz Grammy has ceased to exist, as Ninety Miles would be an outstanding contender. The boost that such an accolade could give to Cuban pianists Duharte and López-Nussa and their excellent quartets makes this loss doubly lamentable. Suffice it to say, this will still stand as one of the very best jazz recordings of the year, in any category.
CD: Ñengueleru; E'cha; City Sunrise; The Forgotten Ones; Black Action Figure; Congo; And This Too Shall Pass; Brown Belle Blues; La Fiesta Va. DVD: Sneak peek of the documentary, Ninety Miles; City Sunrise (live); La Fiesta Va (live).
Stefon Harris: vibraphone; David Sanchez: tenor saxophone; Christian Scott: trumpet (1-3, 5-8); Rember Duharte: piano (1, 6 8), voice (6); Osmar Salazar: electric bass (1, 6, 8); Eduardo Barroetabena: drums (1, 6, 8); Jean Roberto San Miguel: batá, congas, percussion (1, 6, 8); Harold López-Nussa: piano (2-3, 5, 7, 9); Yandy Martinez Gonzalez: bass (2-3, 5, 7, 9); Ruy Adrian López-Nussa: drums (2-3, 5, 7, 9); Edgar Martinez Ochoa: congas, djembe, percussion (2-3, 5, 7, 9), batá (4).