Grammys and Latin Jazz
By Fritz Byers
We don’t adequately appreciate Melvil Dewey (special credit to anyone who knows who he is without having to look him up). He accomplished the modest task of classifying all human knowledge, using the infinite expandability of base-ten numbering and decimals: ten classes, each with ten divisions, and each division with ten sections. Presto. Yes, that’s right – he invented the Dewey Decimal System.
The folks who run the Grammys – a powerhouse brand if there ever was one – have their own brilliant classification scheme. They’ve divided all music into 31 fields, with a total of 110 categories. Honestly, did you know they will award 110 Grammys this year? It’s happening February 8.
It’s easy to satirize such things, but we have much more important business. One of the awards – Field 10, Category 50 – goes to the Best Latin Jazz Album (I love that they still call these things albums). The prize may be pure kitsch, but in this instance the contenders are worthy. We’ll take them up alphabetically, which is the order the Grammy bosses use for their listings.
* “Afro Bop Alliance,” Caribbean Jazz Project [Heads Up International]. This is the latest storm from the creative whirlwind that surrounds the vibraphonist Dave Samuels. Samuels, who first caught the ear with his work with the Latin-influenced fusion group Spyra Gyra, invented the CJP in 1995 with the reed legend Paquito d’Rivera and steel-pans wizard Andy Narell. After a string of terrific releases and a few personnel changes, the CJP won the 2002 Grammy for Best Latin Jazz album for “The Gathering,” which featured the flutist Dave Valentin alongside Samuels. Here, the Project records with the Maryland-based Afro Bop Alliance, a high-energy, Latin-drenched band whose live performances are the stuff of legend. Samuels, ever the conjurer, put the resulting blended group through nine of the CJP’s most familiar tunes, a list that includes Monk’s “Bemsha Swing,” Coltrane’s “Naima,” and the Oliver Nelson classic, “Stolen Moments.” This disc won the Latin Grammy for Best Jazz Release (a totally different award, given last November by the Latin Recording Academy, a subset of the broader group that gives the party next week). That award hasn’t always been a predictor. Still, this release has the sparkle, brilliance, drive, and quirks that augur well.
* “The Latin Side Of Wayne Shorter,” Conrad Herwig & The Latin Side Band [Half Note Records] This is the third time the trombonist Herwig has applied his exceptional taste and musicianship to the works of a revered jazzman: first, John Coltrane, then Miles Davis, now Shorter. Herwig works here with the trumpeter Brian Lynch, the pianist Eddie Palmieri, and the baritonist Ronnie Cuber. This is as good a small group as you could hope for, and what better source of inspiration than the compositions of the non-pareil Shorter. Characteristically, Herwig picks a couple of classics – “Footprints” and “Night Dreamer” are almost unavoidable – but he also romps through “Adams Apple” from the least-loved of Shorter’s Blue Note dates, opens the disc with “Ping Pong,” and treats “Masquelero” to a mysterious, mirrored solo that makes the tune seem both classic and wholly new. On that tune especially, and throughout, Lynch and Palmieri, who co-lead their own dazzling group, are marvels of telepathic support.
* “Song For Chico,” Arturo O’Farrill & The Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra [Zoho] The pianist O’Farrill staffs his big band with the most robust horn section I’ve heard in a while – Michael Mossman leads the trumpets, Reynaldo Jorge is in front of the trombones, and Bobby Porcelli, on alto, heads up the sax section. The horn section navigates the Juan Tizol evergreen, “Caravan,” with a barely-controlled frantic energy, but then slows things down to a hushed, gentle pace on “Such Love,” an arrangement of intricate counterpoint and complex horn-based triads. The title track – a tribute to O’Farrill’s justly revered father, the composer of the Ur-classic “Afro-Cuban Jazz Suite – is a celebration of the great man’s festive, pioneering spirit.
* “ Nouveau Latino”, Nestor Torres [Diamond Light Records] The Puerto Rican flutist Nestor Torres, a veteran of the frenetic New York dance-club scene, drafted a raft of young, inspired musicians to abet his return to the recording studio. Torres never tries to hide his deep attachment to Salsa grooves and the sonic architecture that makes for great, sensuous dance. He won the 2002 Latin Grammy for Best Pop Instrumental Album and has ricocheted around the various neighborhoods that make up current Latin jazz. This disc runs through 11 tunes taken from the decades that shaped Torres’s sensibility.
* “Marooned/Aislado” Papo Vázquez & The Mighty Pirates [Picaro Records] For thirty years, the trombonist Papo Vázquez has divided his fertile musical life between writing and arranging sophisticated charts for powerhouse big bands and performing with his small group, an edgy, possessed collection of brilliant musicians. On this date, the Philadelphia-born leader puts both of his feet squarely in Puerto Rico’s rich and diverse musical scene and then kicks up a big storm. “El Batallon” is one of several tunes on the date that would be a suitable soundtrack for a drag-strip showdown, and the aptly-titled “Race Against Time” leaves no doubt that any group led by Vázquez will win that and any other race. It’s time to appreciate the lifeforce Vázquez brings to everything he does.