The Latin Tinge: Big Band Style

C. Michael Bailey By

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Jazz is a unique gift the United States has given the world and the world has shown its gratitude. In its Nordic big bands and Italian small combos; in Swiss and German record labels, which have made sound recording an art form; in France and the Netherlands, two countries that have welcomed African-American expatriates and enabled them to flourish in their friendly confines.

Perhaps the finest foreign prism jazz has shown through is in our own Western hemisphere, located south of the US border. South America and the Caribbean have provided a humid incubator for American jazz, turning the music into a new and discreet art form, Latin jazz. Bandleaders Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie both used the big band format as a vehicle for Latin jazz explorations. Below are four recent fruits of this exploration.

Bobby Sanabria
Big Band Urban Folktales
Jazzheads Records

There can be no doubt that this recording date was led by a drummer/percussionist. Bobby Sanabria is most previously known for his excellent Zoho recording, !Quarteto Ache! (Kaeon/Zoho, 2002). His chops have graced the recordings of many of his contemporaries. Sanabria fronts a Latin big band on Big Band Urban Folktales, one that he leads with aplomb and confidence.

Sanabria arranges the music on Big Band Urban Folktales in a barely tethered way, allowing the melodies to swirl and the harmonies to soar into unexpected places. The Latin big band may be the most fertile soil in which to plant the seed of improvisation. This disc boasts a freshness in its approach that is most uncommon. "Pink" is decidedly Latin, a kind of the Pink Panther meets trombonist Juan Tizol at the bright end of the street. Sanabria showcases his superb low brass section on the piece.

"D Train" is a complex head arrangement played over a subway piano figure. Tenor saxophone and trumpet double for the theme with flute and muted horn insinuating their way into the melody's presentation. "Besame Mucho" is given a splendid drive, featuring vocalist Hiram "El Pavo" Remo. This piece captures the authentic essence of this album and music.

Caribbean Jazz Project featuring Dave Samuels
Afro Bop Alliance
Heads Up International

Vibraphonist Dave Samuels revisits the heyday of the Caribbean Jazz Project with his new Afro Bop Alliance. The Caribbean Jazz Project is a loose collective held together by Samuels, reeds player Paquito d'Rivera and steel drums expert Andy Narell and recorded widely during the 1990s. Afro Bop Alliance revisits eight selections from the CJP book. Arrangements are updated; orchestrations are tweaked to give the book a fully updated treatment.

Several of the pieces are Samuel's with others by Thelonious Monk, Oliver Nelson, and John Coltrane sprinkled about. The sonics are slick and sleek, definitely Heads Up International engineering. The Afro Bop Alliance horn section has a big sound, one that gives added momentum to the already accelerated nature of the Latin jazz being played. Percussion and low reeds and brass are the order of this band. Samuels steers the ship on the opening "Rendezvous," a swirl of brass and congas over which Samuel's woody marimba floats along with Tim Stanley's darting trumpet. The horn section blows with a gale force restrained in volume.

Coltrane's "Naima" is given a languid stroll with saxophones on top, brass in support and Samuel's vibes the glue. Nelson's "Stolen Moments" is heated with chillies turning its Los Angeles sound toward the south. Samuel's arrangement extends the lines of the piece, making it receptive to the Latin vibe imparted by pianist Harry Appelman and the saxophone section. Luis Hernandez provides a lengthy tenor clinic in his solo. The bulk of this fine recording is built with this type of intelligent design.

This is very much a New York recording. It is big and brash, fast paced, and relentless. What it lacks in authentic humidity it makes up for in chops, arrangement, and performance.

Felipe Salles
South American Suite
Curare Records

Tenor saxophonist and composer Felipe Salles formed his band in 1995 with the expressed intention of steering the Brazilian-jazz fusion away from the traditional bebop dialect and into the more humidly fertile confines of hard bop and the avant-garde. His previous recordings set the stage for these explorations. With South American Suite, Salles doesn't simply rise to the next level of creative invention, he graduates to the front of the class. His composing fully formed, Salles produces an extended piece with Ellingtonian expansiveness.

South American Suite is made up of seven extended and disparately varying compositions that are at once brilliantly unique and fully integrated. As with all exceptional Latin jazz, the genre hinges on the percussion. Salles' use of percussion, while understated, is specific to the suite and its cultural origins. Extending the discussion to the full rhythm section, Salles fully employs electric bassist Fernando Huergo talent horizon and Nando Michelin's piquant piano in establishing his Latin foundation.

Salles has a fresh, breathy Stan Getz cum Joe Henderson tone on all of his horns, a tone that bisects the avant-garde of the opening "Seven Days" and the Ellingtonian "Family Ties," the latter sounding faintly reminiscent of "Caravan" crossed with "Mood Indigo." "Unborn Choro" is what JS Bach might have composed had he been a kapellmeister in Sao Paulo 300 years later. A brilliant Latin counterpoint is established between Salles' flute, Joel Yennoir's trombone, and Laura Arpiainen's violin, coalescing into a cogent, rhythm-driven vehicle.

South American Suite is one of those infrequent recordings that rise from the mire of the independent recording realm to make a true and compelling statement. Felipe Salles proves himself visionary in his composing, arranging, and performance, guaranteeing that the jazz community can count on more provocative music like this.

Arturo O'Farrill and the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra
Song For Chico
Zoho Music

The old jazz saw regarding performance states, "never open with a ballad." Arturo O'Farrill took this to heart when sequencing Song For Chico, his follow up to Wonderful Discovery (MEII Enterprises, 2007) and Una Noche Inolvidable (Palmetto, 2006).

The disc opens with an updating of Juan Tizol's Ellington gem, "Caravan," as arranged by Puerto Rican composer and trombonist Angel "Papo" Vazquez. To say that Vazquez retooled the piece is an understatement. He turned the composition inside out and O'Farrill deftly performs it as such. The piece hosts an avant-garde solo interlude where O'Farrill happily bangs his Bosendorfer like a crazed Don Pullen and Ivan Renta blows like a restrained Sam Rivers. Following this interlude, the principle soloists engage in an updated Dixieland jam session before returning to the head. Interpretations like this for "Caravan" can convince the listener that he or she have not heard it all yet.

Arturo O'Farrill is the son of the late Cuban composer Chico O'Farrill (1921—2001). O'Farrill the younger has taken it upon himself to document his father's music and arrangements and to commission and perform music in his memory. These are the sources for Song For Chico, eight compositions performed by Arturo O'Farrill and the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra. On the commission end of things, O'Farrill was able to coax Dafnis Prietro, paisano Jim Seeley, and Tom Harrell to compose pieces for the project.

Rarified is the music. The late Tito Puente's "Picadillo" provides O'Farrill a wide expanse in which to flex his chromatic Latin chops. Prietro's title selection is viral in its picante swing. O'Farrill provides that Latin descending figure with a booming left hand over which Bobby Porcelli brews alto hot sauce. This is a mambo orgy. Papa O'Farrill's "Cuban Blues" captures the absolute essence of Latin jazz in a full-bodied big horn manner. Tom Harrell's "Humility" demonstrates that composer's genius as well as that of Jimmy Delgado's percussion playing.

Song For Chico should readily please even the fussiest of jazz listeners and amply endorses itself as one of the finest jazz releases this year.

Tracks and Personnel

Big Band Urban Folktales

Tracks: Buenos 57th St. Mambo; Pink; Since I Fell For You; D Train; El Lider; El Ache De Sanabria En Moderacion; Besame Mucho; The Crab; O Som Do Sol; Blues For Booty Shakers; The Grand Wazoo; Obrigado Mestre.

Personnel: Bobby Sanabria: musical director, drum set, timbalitos, bata, marimba, vibes, vocals; Alex Hernez: acoustic bass, kazoo, vocals; Yeissonn Vilamar: piano, kazoo, vocals; Giancarlos Anderson: bongo enceroo, kazoo, vocals; Cristian Rivera: congas, kazoo, vocals; Obanil Nende: primo & buleador bomba barrel; Kevin Bryan: trumpet, kazoo; Shareef Clayton: trumpet, kazoo; Justin Davis: trumpet, kazoo; Andre Neesley: trumpet, kazoo; Michael Phillip Mossman: trumpet, kazoo; Joe Fiedler: trombone, kazoo; Dave Miller: trombone, kazoo; Tim Sessions: trombone, kazoo; Chris Washburne: trombone, kazoo; David De Jesus: reeds, kazoo; Bill Bixler; reeds, kazoo; Peter Brainin: reeds, kazoo; Jeff Lederer: reeds, kazoo; Ricardo Pons: reeds, kazoo; Chareneade: vocals; Hiram "El Pavo" Remo: vocals.

Afro Bop Alliance

Tracks: Rendezvous; Naima; Five For Elvin; Soul Sauce; Picture Frame; Stolen Moments; Birds Of A Feather; Afro Green; Bemsha Swing.

Personnel: Dave Samuels: vibes, marimba; Steve Williams: alto saxophone; Andy Axelrad: alto saxophone; Luis Hernandez: tenor saxophone; Vince Norman: tenor saxophone; Rob Holms: baritone saxophone; Nick Cooper: trumpet; Greg Reese: Trumpet; Tim Stanley: trumpet; Dan Drew: trombone; Jim McFalls: trombone; Ben Patterson: trombone; Mark Morgan: Bass Trombone; Harry Appelman: Piano; JJ Wright: piano; Max Murray: bass; Joe McCarthy drums, percussion; Roberto Quintero: percussion.

South American Suite

Tracks: Seven Days; Unborn Choro; Family Ties; Somewhat Frevo; Crayon; Xote Manco; Three Views.

Personnel: Felipe Salles: soprano, tenor, baritone saxophones; Jocom Manricks: flute, alto saxophone; Laura Arpiainen: violin; Joel Yennoir: trombone; Nando Michelin: piano; Fernando Huergo: bass; Bertram Lehmann: drums; Rogerio Boccato: percussion.

Song For Chico

Tracks: Caravan; Such Love; Picadillo; Song For Chico; Starry Nights; Cuban Blues; Humility; The Journey.

Personnel: Michael Mossman, Jim Seeley, John Walsh, Michael Rodriguez: trumpets; Reynaldo Jorge; Gary Valente; Luis Bonilla; Douglas Purivance: trombones; Bobby Procelli: Erica von Kleist: alto saxophones; Mario Rivera, Ivan Renta: tenor saxophones; Pablo Calogero: baritone saxophone; Arturo O'Farrill: piano, leader, Ruben Rodriguez: bass; Vince Cherico, Jimmy Delgado, Tony Rosa: percussion.

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