The influence of Cuban music on jazz is now generally recognized, and any number of names comes readily to the mind of jazz aficionados when citing influential Latin performers. One that many people often forget is Machito, who was born Frank Grillo, and whose band, which included his trumpet-wielding musical director brother-in-law Mario Bauza, inspired jazz artists like Stan Kenton and Dizzy Gillespie. Kenton and Gillespie were instrumental in giving Latin rhythms their rightful place in jazz music, and others, like Johnny Griffin, Herbie Mann, and Cannonball Adderley recorded or played with Machito at one time or another.
The recordings heard on this collection were all recorded between 1951 and 1955, a period when Machito & His Afro-Cuban Orchestra were at their peak. Machito and Bauza started the Afro-Cubans in 1941, but swing music was still popular at the time and Latin music was not nearly as accepted as it came to be by 1950. Consequently, the group, who pioneered the combining of big band jazz with Cuban rhythms, labored with little attention from the public. But word was spreading among jazz musicians who came to hear the group, and by 1947 Stan Kenton called them a major influence. Kenton went on to record the albums Artistry In Rhythm and Cuban Fire, both of which showed the influence of Machito’s band. A short time later the group was playing the Palladium Ballroom along with the bands of Tito Rodriguez and Tito Puente. Puente had played percussion with Machito’s early ‘40s band, and he too realized the power of the combination that Machito was creating; he had formed his own band and put even more polish on the arrangements. By the time of these recordings, Machito, Puente, and Rodriguez were battling each other on the bandstand, to the delight of Palladium dancers.
This is the first time that all of Machito’s Columbia recordings have been available on one collection, and it makes for extremely fine listening. The sharpness of the band here puts a lot of so-called Latin jazz orchestras of the time to shame, and the percussion work is without compare. “Holiday Mambo”, a Chico O’Farrill composition (Machito and O’Farrill worked together on Dizzy Gillespie’s fantastic Afro Cuban Moods) with its slinky trumpet melody, sets the stage immediately for a really hot time. Other standouts include “Mambo A La Savoy”, a tribute to the famed Harlem ballroom’s dancers; “Oboe Mambo” with its cool trumpet section break and oboe solo by Mitch Miller (!); “Mambo Inn”, usually considered the national anthem of mambo; “Si Si No No” featuring vocalist Graciela (Machito’s sister), and “Bongo Fiesta” with the hot bongos of the title provided by Jose Mangual.
The arrangements here, mostly by Bauza, are all top-notch, and the sinus-clearing brass section certainly was inspirational to Stan Kenton and his arrangers. It’s amazing the way that the big band and Latin elements are given equal play, resulting in a completely smooth fusion of these elements that never overplays either hand. Bauza writes nice figures for the saxophone and brass sections, and the bongos, congas, and maracas are treated as an organic part of the mix rather than grafted on elements. While Machito’s band at this time featured few standout or big name musicians, they play extremely well as a group, and the occasional solo is handled with aplomb, if not exactly fireworks. In the end it was largely about getting people up on the dance floor, and the combination of Cuban rhythms and wide screen big band sounds certainly accomplished that with no problem.
Eventually the big band and Latin jazz scene died down, and rock music came along to effectively kill off dance music. Machito suffered the decline, as did most jazz artists of the time, but he nonetheless continued to record into the ‘80s, silenced only by his death in 1984. Mambo Much Mambo makes available a collection of music that made subsequent explorations of Cuban music by artists like Gillespie, Tito Puente, and Jane Bunnett.