For once the title (nearly) says it all—as long as you realise that we are talking Cuba in its Brooklyn-based form and Jazz-Funk in its raw, Eddie Harris-Les McCann variant. Subsequent explanation can then be largely ditched. It becomes a safe bet that this is going to be an extended, piano-sax groove with a strong Latin flavour. Indeed, much of Cuban Jazz Funk could pass for one of those sought after items that Gilles Peterson used to drop in his Acid Jazz/Dingwalls days. Something that would have slotted in neatly between Willis Jackson and Willie Bobo. Given sufficient exposure this small label product could still find its way into a few DJs boxes.
Miguel Romero (keyboards) is the session leader and its prime compositional force. He is an attacking but slightly stiff player, which does no real harm but won’t have Chucho Valdés quaking in his boots. Fortunately, the talented multi-reedsman Larry Jackson handles the bulk of the solo work and he is at the top of his gruff and gritty game. The rest of the group (five in all) don’t get much of a look-in, being content to serve up a rich, percussion-heavy backing that does all that is required of it. Without Jackson it might have been rather faceless stuff but he adds a touch of class, without making matters too complicated or losing sight of the music’s essential rhythmic drive.
All tracks have their merits, although some are surprisingly short and some way too long. I was just settling into the lively opening cut (“Descarga Palmieri”) when it stopped mid-note. Pity, as it was potentially the strongest thing on the album. The gentle, Brazilian flavoured “Sunrise” also hardly outstays its welcome. A delightful tune, with piano and sax co-operating beautifully, it oozes warmth rather than heat. In these two early efforts, Jackson displays an authoritative, full tone that is equally suited to either the forceful or the more delicate sides of Latin Jazz.
However, from that point on the Cuban element takes something of a back seat to free-roaming, soulful work-outs—especially on the upbeat selections. The epic (in length if not quite stature) “Zorro’s Rollercoaster” begins with a Samba feel but is really a blues-based, funk marathon—exhilarating if somewhat messy. The other magnum opus is “Citizen of the World”—equally enterprising and, happily, far more controlled. Purely at the level of performance this is probably the outstanding track. Jackson is majestic throughout and Romero’s staccato piano style excels itself—reminding one a little of Hilton Ruiz. Even here though, there is something about the solo at pace that does not quite sit easily on the pianist’s shoulders. He has much less trouble when in mellow mode and should perhaps use the Rhodes more on the faster takes—when he does it works well.
Two of those moodier interludes surround “Citizen”—“In the Moment” and “Sieston”. Characterised by some deft melodic touches, Jackson and Romero keep close company, to their mutual benefit, though by the close the sax just shades it. Both tunes are jazz of a more orthodox shade than elsewhere and have a plaintive quality that adds some welcome tonal contrast to the more furious excursions. That said, Romero’s final piano study, “Meditation”, carries only some of the profundity one imagines it is supposed to. Again there is a suspicion that our man is only completely at home when adding accompanying flourishes. As a main voice his technique appears a little heavy-handed.
If this sounds a bit harsh to the album’s main protagonist, remember this is not a record just about solo blowing. The ensemble work and the groove is where the real prizes are—and Romero does just fine on both counts. In fact, for what it is—a done-in-a-take performance that works better if you move your hips than if you sit still—this session has much to recommend it. Jackson is a giant throughout—a solo album please—and Romero leads a hard-working, single-minded crew successfully. A little extra polishing would not have been amiss but Cuban Jazz Funk sets out its stall clearly and does not disappoint. It will probably work best with the dancers but is more varied than initially seems the case and is a worthy addition to a good year for all things Jazzy, Latin and, above all, Funky.