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Sabu Martinez: Sabu Martinez: Palo Congo – 1957

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1957 was a banner year for hard bop and Blue Note. In one year, the label released 40 albums, including classics from John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Horace Silver, Bud Powell, Lou Donaldson, Hank Mobley, Johnny Griffin and eight by Jimmy Smith alone. In the midst of all that hard bop, Blue Note released two percussion-based albums that were way off the beaten path. Art Blakey's Orgy in Rhythm was a drum-fest of epic proportions. Sabu Martinez's Palo Congo was a conga lover's dream. Both are acquired tastes.

Palo Congo is a tough listen, at least at first. There are no melodies. The album features five conga players, a bunch of chanters and one guitar.

To Western ears, guitarist Arsenio Rodriguez is the easiest to relate to. His "Rhapsodia del Maravilloso" is five amazing minutes of Latin guitar improvisation. Yes, the congas are there in the background, but it's Rodriguez's astounding guitar that fascinates. If your only experience with Latin-tinged guitar is Carlos Santana, you're missing something truly impressive.

But it's a mistake to focus on Rodriguez, wonderful as he is. Most of Palo Congo is filled with complex polyrhythms and Spanish chants reminiscent of gospel call-and-response. This is genuine Afro-Cuban music and I don't pretend to understand it all.

For many jazz fans—including me—the traditional Afro-Cuban reference point is Dizzy Gillespie and Chano Pozo, especially their classic "Manteca," also recorded in 1957. That tune is a real meld of American jazz and Afro-Cuban rhythms, while Palo Congo is more Cuban than American (though Martinez himself is from New York City).

At first, to my ears, most of the album seemed noisy and repetitive. After several listens, I was enjoying it more. It will never be a favorite, just as Blakey's Orgy in Rhythm will never find its way onto my best-of list. Both are ideal for fans of the genre, for folks that dig unusual percussion. I need a melody, at least as a jumping-off point, so that's my limitation, not Martinez's.

Palo Congo is highly recommended for fans of genuine Cuban music. For jazz lovers dipping their toes into Latin beats, it's less accessible.

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)

Availability: Good luck finding a new copy, but used ones are not hard to find

Cost: It'll cost you a bit —$9 for a used CD, $30 or more for a new CD, but $7 for the MP3 files

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