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Latin Colors

Latin Jazz Review for 2007

By Fritz Byers,
Special to La Prensa


Latin Jazz is, if possible, more vibrant, more fertile than ever.  During 2007, some great new releases joined the permanent canon of this rich branch of the diverse music we call jazz.

Fritz Byers

1. Bobby Sanabria - Big Band Urban Folktales (Jazzheads Records). For many, Sanabria’s is the disc of the year. The Grammy-nominated date is a completely new thing, even for the veteran leader. Whether showing off a pair of virtuoso trumpeters, or showcasing Peter Brainin’s soprano horn, or creating a lush setting for Charenee Wade’s vocals, musical director Sanabria is relentless in his innovations. And for good measure, he shows his own instrumental chops with a masterful variation on the blues on “Blues for Booty Shakers.” 

If you were fortunate to attend last year’s 12th Annual Leadership Conference in Elyria, Ohio, you would have met and savored Sanabria. See La Prensa’s “Bobby Sanabria to join Navarrette in CHIP’s conference,” which can be viewed online at: https://laprensatoledo.com/Stories/2007


2. Marlon Simon and the Nagual Spirits - In Case You Missed It (Jazzheads Records). This release establishes the Simon brothers – pianist Edward, trumpeter Michael, and percussionist Marlon – as brilliantly gifted siblings the equal of the famed Marsalis clan.  The opening track, “Overture,” features Marlon’s brilliant arrangement for vocals and a string quartet, and it lets us know right away that we are in the presence of something special. This track establishes a mood of sweeping brilliance that pervades the recording.

Bobby Sanabria performing at Lorain County Community College in April of 2007 at  the Coalition for Hispanic/Latino Issues & Progress (CHIP)’s Leadership Leadership Conference.


The next cut, the title track, proves that the band can also swing as hard as necessary, blazing through the Afro-Cuban rhythms at the core of Marlon’s inventive arrangement. There are virtuoso performances throughout, on tunes of any tempo and coloration, from the funky line of “Home Cooking” (written by the late pianist Hilton Ruiz) to the gentle “Huele a Peligro (with a gorgeous solo by saxophonist Peter Brainin), to the intricate, snaking lines of “Manicero.”  This is a great recording.


3. Mark Weinstein, Con Alma (Jazzheads Records) The trombonist and arranger Mark Weinstein has been drawn to Latin jazz since the 1960s. After forty years, it seems he wanted to explore the form without the familiar staples of strong brass and layered percussion.


In this striking recording, Weinstein abandons his trombone, opting for flutes – soprano, alto, and bass. And to aid his journey, he recruits the great Latin bassist Santi Debriano, the drummer Maurcio Herrera, the conga master Pedrito Martínez, and the pianist Mark Levine. The opening track, “Santi’s Africaleidescope,” is a stunner, weaving Debriano’s bass, the leader’s nearly atonal flute work, and Levine’s powerful piano. Herrera and Martínez bring amazing rhythmic skill and diversity to Wayne Shorter’s “Fee Fi Fo Fum.”  The whole band gives Coltrane’s late masterpiece, “Crescent,” a marvelous facelift. 


4. John Santos Quintet, Papa Mambo (Machete Records).  The percussionist Santos led the great Machete Ensemble for twenty years.  When it dissolved last year, Santos chose to replace his big band with a quintet.  And what a band this is: Santos is joined in percussion duties by the great Orestes Vilato, who focuses on timables and bongos.  John Calloway is on flute, Marco Díaz on piano, and Saul Sierra on bass.  Trumpeter Ray Vega guests on a couple of tunes, including the title track, a tribute to the late Cuban bassist Cachao. A variety of guest vocalists and musicians enrich the proceedings.


5. Pacquito D’Rivera Quintet?, Funk Tango (Sunnyside Records) Nearly thirty years ago, D’Rivera won his first Grammy, for “Irakere.”  Ever since, the Cuban multi-reed great has been working on the forefront of music, unconstrained by genre. His newest release is characteristically eclectic, full of international flavors, shifting poly-rhythms, and brilliant soloists.   Notable here is the Latin-inflected version of Coltrane’s classic “Giant Steps,” Hector Del Curto’s bandoneon on “Revirado,” and the leader’s jaw-dropping work on the title track.


6. Roswell Rudd and Yomo Toro, El Espiritu Jibaro (Soundscape).  The trombonist Roswell Rudd has been on the front line of the jazz avant-garde for his entire career, and he has displayed a life-long fascination with ethnology and world music. In this far-out recording, Rudd brings his vast skill and his penchant for free playing to Latin music, in the company of the Puerto Rican guitarist Yomo Toro (known here and there as “the Puerto Rican Jimi Hendrix,” a moniker that, if nothing else, conveys his astonishing facility on all manner of string instruments, including the various types of the cuatro, the national instrument of Puerto Rico.)  This recording brings these two whirlwinds together, and places them in a wide variety of diverse settings. The highlight of this exceptional date is “Preludio,” in which the pair displays a supernatural empathy.

Author’s Note: We are strong and resilient.  We endure difficult times of war, poverty, and loss, and we emerge from these times with our spirits intact – older, possibly wiser, and hopeful. When we reach the end of a trying year, we take a longing look backwards to find the things that helped us through.  Always for me these things include the soundtrack of the year, a blend of familiar old favorites and the new releases that have joined the list of indispensable music that I’ll take to the New Year. ¡Prospero Año Nuevo, 2008! 


Editor’s Note: Fritz Byers is a practicing attorney who also shares his love of jazz with readers and radio listeners in his weekly radio show, Jazz Spectrum, which airs every Saturday evening on WGTE 91.3FM. According to Mr. Byers, “I have been hosting Jazz Spectrum 91 continuously since April 1, 1989.

“Jazz Spectrum 91 is designed as an anthology, a loose and flowing tour through the history of the music, showcasing the wondrous diversity of jazz and the virtuosity of the musicians who play it. The notion of jazz history, in any formal sense, is problematic, since the best recordings are timeless, tied not so much to time and place as to personal and collective inspiration, which, like all thunderclaps of genius, defy tidy explanation. Jazz is marked, at once, both by limitless innovation and enormous discipline, and it is this tension—between the individual and the group, between form and invention—that makes jazz such a source of boundless fascination. And joy.”


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