[22 April 2008]
PopMatters Features Editor
Ever since the formation of the Caribbean Jazz Project back in the mid-1990s, vibraphonist Dave Samuels’ band has mutated significantly. Members have been exchanged, musical approaches have shifted; quality, however, has not stuttered much at all. His work has been consistent, and his band has remained a stable, powerful wind at his back. On this, their eighth release together (including Here and Now, 2005’s excellent live record), the CJP has teamed up with Baltimore’s celebrated Afro Bop Alliance, a seven-piece led by trombonist Dan Drew. The result is a fun, groovy record, as much an addition to the discography of the CJP as it is a step forward for the ABA.
The broad arrangements (by the ABA’s Drew) tend, quite unsurprisingly, towards traditional Afro-Cuban groove. Even John Coltrane’s haunting “Naima” is recast as a funky skirt-swinger. The musicians are everywhere in top form—especially Samuels, whose vibes ride the waves of rhythm with an animal grace befitting the genre—and the terrific percussion is tight, and polished as a stone. All of these numbers have appeared on previous CJP records, but they have never sounded like this. The addition of the seven-member ABA has pushed Samuels’ band to new regions, exploring the percussive, rhythmic aspects of the compositions in ways they had before only hinted toward. Indeed, this may be their most exciting record yet.
On much-covered classics like Coltrane’s “Naima”, Oliver Nelson’s “Stolen Moments”, Dizzy Gillespie’s “Saoul Sauce”, and Thelonius Monk’s “Bemsha Swing”, the band finds space to explore with welcome sparkle and verve. The new arrangements bring a certain levity to all of the proceedings, sure, but there is something profoundly exhilarating about the discovery of a funky core beneath the longing, plaintive sweep of Coltrane’s love note, for example, or Monk’s broad swing.
On the rest of the tracks, most of which are Samuels’ own, the two bands work seamlessly as they expand the possibilities of the original tracks. With standout work from Samuels driving the action, the CJP-ABA makes it all work. As with much of Dave Holland’s recent big band material, the listener might feel a bit of exhaustion creeping in toward the end of a sustained listen—the booming fullness of such a grand collective can be overwhelming after a point, and you begin to long for a few more intimate numbers—but the overall result is a triumphant record, and hopefully has left the seeds for further collaboration between these two groups.