[18 January 2007]
Jazz, from the very jump, has had what Jelly Roll Morton called “the Spanish tinge”. Sparked to life in New Orleans—where the Creole, Moorish, African, and European influences all came filtered through the Gulf of Mexico—that’s only natural. Then, in New York in the ‘40s and ‘50s, the bustling Latin culture was naturally retrofitted onto bebop by Dizzy Gillespie, Chano Pozo, Machito, and many others. By the 1960s (and continuing to today), New York was the home to a bustling Latin jazz scene where Afro-Cuban clave-driven music is the very heartbeat of many parts of town.
At center of that scene was and is the great composer and pianist Eddie Palmieri. He is, truly, the Duke Ellington of Latin jazz—a bandleader with a signature sound whose influence has been felt among jazz purists and mega-stars of the “Salsa” world. Palmieri, a native New Yorker whose parents are from Ponce, Puerto Rico, won the very first Grammy Award for Latin Music in 1974.
Simpatico is a collaboration between Palmieri and a trumpeter who has recently been his closest jazz associate, Brian Lynch. Lynch is a hard bop trumpeter with long stints playing with no less than Horace Silver, Art Blakey, and Phil Woods. Simultaneously, though, he was playing in Latin bands around NY and ultimately collaborating with Palmieri—including writing material for Palmieri’s recent La Perfecta II, a revisiting of his brilliant early Latin sound. Every tune on Simpatico was composed by one of the two leaders, with the last four co-credited to both Palmieri and Lynch.
In short: it is a crackling Latin jazz record—tasty, hip-shaking and dazzling in its improvised solos and pungent arrangements.
First, the band is sterling. Lynch has brought in past collaborators from both his Latin and jazz settings: Phil Woods, playing alto like it was the human voice; Donald Harrison, a fellow former-Jazz Messeger and flexible like a Chinese gymnast; Conrad Herwig, with whom he recorded the under-appreciated Latin-izing of Coltrane tunes, Que Viva Coltrane; I-can-play-anything saxophonist Greg Tardy; brilliant Latin jazz pianist Edsel Gomez; and a host of A-list Latin percussionists. Like Palmieri’s best bands, this is a group that sounds utterly comfortable with fully integrated Latin jazz—not merely a salsa band with soloists or jazz group with a conga player for spice. Each track features a different line-up, but all crackle with life.
The closer, “Freehands”, for example, burns like a Latin bop comet. The melody is an intricate Silver-ish line that smoothes out into a bridge that might have been played by Clifford Brown. Lifted as it is from the start with percussive percolation, though, it’s no surprise when the solos by Lynch, Harrison, and Gomez seem to be the work of men with a taste for adventure. Donald Harrison has not sounded this glorious in an age, and the percussionists’ breakdown is set over a classic piano montuno.
Lynch’s mentors also shine on “Slippery”, a swinging Latin waltz. Woods’ solo, launched by the horns’ downward glissando, is rubber band bluesy—deep and soaring at once, dancing around the horn figures that develop in Lynch’s wonderful arrangement. Palmieri solos coming out of a Boris Kozlov bass solo, sounding Monk-ish at first, but then playing serious chromatic shifts in a bumpy percussive style that is all Eddie.
There is more traditional Latin material as well. “Guajira Dubois” is a grand Latin chart that sets up a Palmieri star-turn on piano—the kind of solo that is as much a percussion workout on “88 tuned drums” as it is a standard melodic improvisation. The rounds of solos that follow—from Lynch, Woods, Tardy, and Herwig—follow suit with glorious stabs of syncopation.
It is not uncharacteristic for Latin jazz to feature a vocalist, and there are two features here from Lila Downs. Downs is a Mexican-American vocalist who doesn’t normally work in Latin jazz, favoring a folk music style. Nevertheless, she shines. On Palmieri’s “Pagina de Mujer”, she is absolutely idiomatic, her voice soaring over the instruments and the band’s repeated vocal refrain. Downs shares writing credit with Lynch for “Que Seria la Vida”, a sultry ballad that she delivers with airy vulnerability, Lynch and Woods playing obligato around her. It is a voice perhaps unsuited to commercial salsa, and therefore it seems particularly wonderful here—just a little off, a little different, a breath of fresh air.
What strange good news it is, then, that Simpatico is a Grammy nominee for Latin Jazz Album in 2006 (though my choice for the win would be Edsel Gomez’s Cubist Music, an album so fine that its appearance on the list of Grammy nominees almost makes you forget about Christopher Cross and Milli Vanilli). The Grammy nominations in jazz remain a bizarrely mixed bag—from the sublime to the merely familiar—but in this case a small ovation is in order. Simpatico is certainly among the finest Latin jazz records of the year, if not of the decade-to-date.
Here’s hoping that jazz and Latin music remain ever-intertwined. It seems that Brian Lynch is perfectly inclined and positioned to stay on the case. May he Grammy many times in the coming years.