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The Endless Well of Latin Jazz

This was another banner year for Latin Jazz, a genre that is so rich and established that it hardly a subset of jazz as much as a glorious thing unto itself.

The Pedrito Martinez Group

The Pedrito Martinez Group

Label: Motema
US Release Date: 2013-10-08

Michele Rosewoman's New Yor-Uba

30 Years: a Musical Celebration of Cuba in America

Label: Advance Dance Disques
US Release Date: 2013-09-10

Jazz boasts many facets of brilliance as an art form. Maybe none is greater than how jazz absorbs and combines with other forms of music. Jazz exhibits an eerie flexibility, able to make magic with funk and samba, with rock and with various forms of European classical music. Jazz musicians from around the world have used their folk traditions to enrich jazz, and great jazz musicians have traveled the world to make this great American music that much richer. John Coltrane’s use of music from the Far East is just one good example.

But no jazz hybrid form has been more important, more organic, and more long-lasting than Latin Jazz.

Jellyroll Morton talked about “the Latin tinge” as an essential element of jazz as far back as the '20s—the influence of Afro-Cuban elements was actually part of jazz from the start, with syncopations and rhythmic components from beyond the US critical to an early understanding of swing. Dizzy Gillespie explicitly incorporated Cuban elements into modern jazz when he collaborated with percussionist Chano Pozo in the '40s. And Latin Jazz flowered in the '60s (and beyond) as it became an essential part of the life of Latinos in New York City—and as the music now known as Salsa grew into a popular form by fusing jazz and Latin forms into propulsive dance music.

This was another great year for Latin Jazz, and a couple of recent experiences have brought that truth home for me.

The Eddie Palmieri Septet: Still Incomparable

A month ago I attended a performance by the small jazz group now being led by the Latin Jazz pianist Eddie Palmieri. Featuring Jonathan Powell on trumpet and Louis Fouche and alto sax, in addition to a rhythm section that adds three percussionists and acoustic bass to Palmieri’s piano, this is a jazz group rather than a proper Latin orchestra. But, even as its instrumentation brings to mind a Latinized Jazz Messengers, the band plays mambo-type structures mainly built on clave rhythms that are layered in the complex cross patterns between piano, percussion, bass, and even the melody.

At the age of 76, Palmieri is an old master, a spunky showman, and a man who clearly feels the weight of representing the history of his music. Between tunes, Palmieri launched into enthusiastic (and meandering) lectures on the history of the music, punctuated by individual stories—such as the time he met Thelonious Monk. And there’s much history to be told. He was headlining the legendary Palladium Ballroom in New York (his hometown) in the late '50s, and his early '60s records revolutionized how Latin music could sound.

Photo of Eddie Palmieri from

In concert, Palmieri played old material and new. He performed some of the tunes associated with his legendary “La Perfecta” band, even though that group’s signature sound (trombones and flute, arrayed ingeniously in the arrangements) is not duplicated by the septet. The crowd about went wild when Palmieri played “El Sonido Nuevo” from his famous '60s-era collaboration with Cal Tjader. But more recent compositions did not lack for fire. Palmieri’s piano work was spikey and surprising, lurching from expressive Monk-like runs to rhythmic jabs to grooving montunos that would lock in so tight with the rhythm section that the room’s lack of a dance floor seemed positively criminal.

The crowd ate up every note of Palmieri’s performance. He was generous in giving solo time to his band, and this faith was deserved. Powell and Fouche were searching and thrilling soloists who more than carried the melodic needs of the music. The history of all that music felt compressed by being jammed into the confines of such a small band, but the history felt alive still, as it should.

The Pedrito Martinez Group, Living Latin Jazz Today

Afro-Cuban jazz is not just history, however. The list of exciting contemporary Latin Jazz groups is long, but the October 2013 recording debut of the Pedrito Martinez Group has been hard to ignore. This record captures the live energy of a quartet that has had a three-night-a-week residency at Guantanamera in New York for some time, a gig that many famous musicians have grown addicted to.

Pedrito March 28, 2010

Martinez has been in New York for 15 years, after coming over from his native Havana with the soprano saxophonist Jane Bunnett, who specializes in Cuban-influenced jazz. He tells a story of trying to sit in with Brian Lynch’s great Latin Jazz band early in his New York residency and being embarrassed by an inability to negotiate different time signatures. But to hear his band today—aggressive, astonishing, precise, and ebullient—it’s hard to imagine him ever backing down from a musical challenge.

The new record is a pure joy. All four musicians also sing, creating a rich weave of harmonies and call-and-response patterns. The songs are mostly pure Latin forms, but the group also transforms “Travelling Riverside Blues” by Robert Johnson and the Jackson Five’s “I’ll Be There” to their own devices. This is a small band, of course, but the sound is as wide as the Hudson River as it roars toward the Atlantic. It doesn’t hurt that this disc is rife with impressive guest spots. Wynton Marsalis plays some noble trumpet on “Lengua de Obbara”, winding his bright sound around the vocals without overstepping bounds. His tender extended solo toward the end of the song is a perfect example of how this relatively “pure” Latin band intersects easily and freely with jazz.

The Robert Johnson tune easily allows guitarist John Scofield into the field of play, doubling the piano on the funky riff that animates the opening. Album producer Steve Gadd adds his famous drum kit to the action on “La Luna” and “Los Santos”. There is also some gentle harmonica by Gary Schreiner on the Jackson Five cover. But the vast majority of what is great here is in the band itself.

Pianist and singer Aniacne Trujillo is a knockout. Her playing perfectly combines taste, precision, and power. Trained classically but born in Havana as well, Trujillo fills completely the harmonic needs of the band. Her singing easily carries the band on the songs where Martinez himself does not take the lead. She crushes “Memorias” with vocal power, blues/soul feeling, and expressive range. In the spots where her playing goes it alone beneath the vocals, it seems as though not one bit of percussive power goes missing.

The rest of the band is pan-Latin American exceptional as well. Electric bassist Alvaro Benevides is from Caracas, Venezuela, and he plays all over his instrument like a beautiful melodicist. Jhair Sala, from Peru, is a fluent on conga, timbales, bongo, and bata. Together, Benevides and Sala harmonize as an ideal counterpoint to Martinez’s forceful lead vocal on most tracks here.

The hook to this band, naturally, and the dangerous kitsch landmine, would be the pop covers. So, listening to their version of “I’ll Be There” is both of great curiosity and the test. Trujillo sings the lead in English, and the first 16 bars have a plaintive saccharine quality, with overdubbed backing vocals making it sound, indeed, like a pop song. But on the second verse, Martinez brings in a subtle Afro-Cuban groove, and then Trujillo adds Latin piano groove to verse three. By the time the song’s release comes, we are in a safe, joyous realm where Trufillo’s singing is bluesy and soulful even as the band moves into something like Latin joy. Really, to dislike it on purism grounds is to be beyond churlish. It’s a joy. The tag section, just piano and stacked harmony singing in Spanish, with percussion kicking in as an afterburner: tremendous.

I know I’m coming to Martinez and his music late. National Public Radio and guitarist Derek Trucks have already fallen all over him with praise. But: better late than never. Pedrito Martinez is a 2013 highlight, regardless of genre.

Michele Rosewoman’s New Yor-Uba: A Musical Celebration of Cuba in America

And who should turn up as a featured vocalist and percussionist on 2013’s most wide-ranging Afro-Cuban jazz recording, the latest from pianist Michele Rosewoman? Yes, it’s Pedrito Martinez sitting at the center of the first recording in 30 years from this astonishing Latin-Jazz “big band” of sorts, a fantastic collective that shuffles together with masterful ingenuity Rosewoman’s expertise in both modern jazz and Cuban folkloric music.

Michele Rosewoman (press photo)

New Yor-Uba contains five horns (Oliver Lake, Howard Johnson, and Mike Reed on reeds, Vincent Gardner and Freddie Hendrix on brass); Rosewoman’s vocals, piano, and Fender Rhodes; Yunior Terry on bass; drummer Adam Cruz; Martinez; and then additional percussionists and vocalists as necessary. With a band this versatile, the options are myriad, and Rosewoman doesn’t ignore any of them in 14 tracks spread across two generous and kaleidoscopic compact discs. Almost all the material was composed and arranged by the leader (with traditional materials throughout), and many tracks weave the traditional and the modern brilliantly.

“Natural Light” begins with a lovely solo piano introduction, layered with complex chords straight from the modern jazz tradition. But before you know it, Martinez, Nina Rodriguez, Rosewoman, and Abraham Rodriguez come in with sumptuous ballad vocals. At minute two, the horn section glides into the place occupied by the singers, making you realize how jazz ensemble voicings mirror those of Afro-Cuban singing (or vice versa?)—and only then does the groove enter, with Rosewoman’s piano and Terry’s bass creating a funky underpinning for a punching horn part that might have appeared on an M-Base record by Greg Osby or Steve Coleman. The fantasia that is the center of this tune combines all these elements. The singing moves over a set of harmonies you would rarely hear in traditional Cuban music, with the horn section providing plush accompaniment and Rosewoman’s piano spinning bop lines through the cracks at times. Her solo sounds more like McCoy Tyner than like Chucho Valdes.

There are a dozen different models of how to manage these incredible combinations on New Yor-Uba. “Por Ahora y Para Siempre” is a modern jazz instrumental built around a set of jabbing syncopations that are grounded in the Afro-Cuban rhythm but that are articulated beyond the groove itself. “Old Calabar” begins with an extended a cappella section, with a clave groove slinking in afterward. Rosewoman plays her Rhodes electric piano here in a searching style, setting up a languorous and ambivalent section that allows the horns to play “out” and the singers to reenter in a manner that is more chanting than singing.

“In Praise of Spiritual Guides” puts a salty dash of gospel music into a cry out to lost spirits, beautiful jazz solos complimenting the singing that rides over a largely uncountable rhythm. “Where Water Meets Sky” creates a throbbing and irregular funk rhythm feel in which the horn section essentially becomes the rhythm section, with the Cuban-style singing slathered on top intriguingly—highlighted by a Rosewoman Rhodes solo that sounds like it was inspired by Bitches Brew-era Miles Davis. “Warrior” lurches like a Thelonious Monk track in a club mix with James Brown . . . until it sneakily shifts into percussion and vocals at 3:30, a traditional call-and-response.

Michele Rosewoman refuses to see any boundaries that can contain Afro-Cuban music and its rich fusion with jazz. And the truth is that there were ten more Latin Jazz records or performances from 2013 that might have been worth mentioning here. It is a deep, deep well of invention, tradition, and innovation—as proud a form of music as any other with which jazz is associated. And it grooves relentlessly. May it ever.


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