Make a note of that label. In years to come collectors will go all gooey-eyed at its very mention. Only two years old, Khaeon has already established its “blind purchase” credentials by allowing some of New York’s choicest and freshest, Latin-influenced jazz improvisers a chance to strut their stuff. This latest installment moves a little closer to the company’s more general interest in “world music”, but is close kin to that irresistible Nu Yorican vibe that made fellow Khaeonites John Benitez and Christos Rafalides among my most listened-to discoveries of the past few months.
Trio Mundo are Manolo Badrena (percussion), Dave Stryker (guitars), and Andy McKee (bass). Honorary membership should have been accorded to Steve Slagle, who enlivens a number of tracks on sax and flute. They are hardly household names, but are all veterans of innumerable recording sessions. Badrena may be the most familiar, through his work with Weather Report, whereas the woefully under-celebrated Stryker is usually mentioned only in regard to a long association with the late Stanley Turrentine. Actually, each man can boast a strong CV, one that would include outings with some of the worthiest names in jazz. And all four have made the most of this opportunity to showcase both their talents and the diverse musical influences that inspire them.
Badrena ensures that the rhythmic pulse that anything even vaguely “Latin” demands is never lacking. Fortunately, he is from the subtler, more nuanced school of Puerto Rican players and coaxes rather than batters into submission the tunefulness that makes up the album’s key point of interest. For although the opening “Carnaval” has enough kick for any dancefloor, the dominant mood is reflective and relaxed. Not introspective, this is joyful and uplifting music, but it is more delicate and melodic than one usually associates with matters “Carnivalesque”. Maybe it’s because Badrena is also a guitarist and a useful Bossa-style singer (listen to “Raveena” or “Dale Calor”) that the “song” element is so strong. Whatever the reason, there is a gentleness about the trio that is as soothing as it is surprising.
He is more than just abetted in this by Stryker, whose playing is exemplary throughout. If a more liquid style has been heard in recent years then I have missed it. His own compositions form the bulk of the set, which would have been credit enough its own right, but on tunes like “Carnaval” and “Spirits” he manages to sound like a more than worthy successor to Wes Montgomery. Not that he is a one-style player. With the haunting, flamenco-blues “Rose”, he takes what is an almost “smooth jazz” tune (complete with obligatory soprano sax from Slagle) and invests it with a poignant and very polished lyricism. Elsewhere, whether folky and spare as on “Sunrise” or impulsive and exotic (on the, rather too self-consciously, orientalist “Raga”) his touch is assured and always adroit.
Slagle I prefer on flute, simply because its tones seem more in keeping with the album’s essential organic quality. He has an honest, no-nonsense quality to his art which works well in this expert but essentially unselfish context. As for Bassist McKee, well, he is no slouch in the tunefulness department either and his occasional foray centre-stage depends less on jazz protocol than his rightness for the job at hand. His pivotal contribution to “Tres y Quatro” is magnificent in its lightness and mobility. Composer Stryker gets all urgent and intense, while McKee carries the melody with little apparent effort or worry. It makes for some marvelous exchanges and is indicative of a sense of genuine dialogue that exists on all eleven tracks.
One or two numbers do hover on the twee or merely ambient, but the depth of the source material and the dexterity of the players preclude any descent into the mere maudlin. In any case, extended pieces such as the more exploratory and eccentric “Trio Mundo” guarantee that any possible laziness is kept well in check.
Some may argue that the jazz quotient is sacrificed in favour of a fashionable “worldism”. I don’t believe that is at all the case, but I do think you could recommend this to the more jazz-wary listener, based on its appealing rhythmic sensibilities and the sheer beauty of the over-all sound. There is now more than ever a ready market for any excursion through a variety of contemporary styles. When the music is as agreeable and intelligent as this, traditional boundaries should collapse. Most of the material is derived from what are undeniably “Latin” forms but the results are not in any way simply derivative. Or simply “Latin”, for that matter.
Carnaval, despite all its laid-back, multiple-referencing, is something more than a clever potpourri. It has a coherence and character of its own. Most pleasingly, the whole session invigorates without being too aggressive and relaxes without being at all cloying. Those are not attributes to be discarded lightly. All in all, here is further proof that New York Jazz is as healthy as it has been for a generation and its Latin variant especially so. Thank goodness Khaeon are on hand to let us all share what the not too distant future will probably regard as a golden age. But please don’t wait ‘till then to investigate Trio Mundo.