John Benítez Trio: Descarga in New York

John Benítez Trio
Descarga in New York

A short preamble — if you will forgive me. This album was produced self-consciously as a celebration of the multicultural encounters made possible by New York. The players include a Puerto Rican, a Cuban, a Venezuelan and an African-American. The musical influences are wide, the common language is the essentially American one of jazz and the meeting places are the clubs and bars of that most cosmopolitan of cities. Without wishing to burden an essentially joyous work such as this with too much social significance, it is of course impossible to listen to these recordings in the same way after recent events. From this realisation, a number of conclusions may be drawn — both about Music and New York. Suffice it to say that this album is just one example, among many, of the connectedness that music affords and of the creativity to which human beings can aspire. In a world where some would seek destruction and separation, one should be grateful for these musicians and to the city that brought them together.

On to the record itself. When a form of music becomes fashionable and commercially attractive it has to endure a number of indignities. One is simply a glut of product — to the point that even the hardiest fan begins to have doubts. Another problem is the variety of musical crimes committed in its name. Brazilian, Cuban and all the national styles collectively termed Latin have lately been prey to both over-exposure and, more worryingly, to the likes of Gerri Halliwell and the whole “Vida Loca” nonsense. It says something for the variety of forms and their inherent strength that the music seems immune to these tribulations. For, thankfully, quality sounds and new acts just keep on emerging.

The catch-all category “Latin Jazz” is having a particularly busy time. Not since the Bossa Nova boom can there have been so many artists on the scene. But don’t worry, this bass-led trio album is a welcome addition to the roster. Together they have come up with an inventive mixture of the fresh and the familiar which will do the cause (of what is possibly now the major sub-genre in jazz) no harm at all. Descarga in New York is not without the odd glitch but will sit well on any record shelf — perhaps in between Chucho Valdés’ solo set or the Calle 54 soundtrack, to mention just two recent, credible releases. Group leader and arranger Benítez says of this project, “our concept comes from jazz but it’s also an integration of styles…an integration that encompasses the full rhythmic spectrum of Latin music…not just Cuban”. Believe it.

John Benítez has been a key part of the East Coast Latin/Jazz hierarchy for a few years now and has worked with major figures such as Palmieri, Puente and Hilton Ruiz, as well as featuring in the Mingus Big Band — which I assume is a major accolade for any bassist. Puerto Rican by birth, he brings a keen ear for traditional rhythms to a fluid, almost flighty technique. He is not one of those players who nails everything down but skips and floats along with the tunes. This can produce its moments of panic — sometimes you want things tightly held — but it is an appealing style that brings out the instrument’s lyrical potential.

His pianist is Luis Perdomo, from Venezuela. If it weren’t for the name on the cover you would be forgiven for thinking of this as a keyboard-led session. Perdomo’s is the name you will most want to look out for after hearing the group. He is the principal soloist and prime composer on the album. More melodic and less pyrotechnically inclined than someone like Valdés, he still has plenty of firepower when its needed. Serious chops, as they say. Cuban Dafnis Prieto shares percussion duties with Conga-man Richie Flores — so it is only occasionally truly a trio. This double rhythm section exudes complexity and risk taking. Polyrhythmic heaven for the most part — though at times they do seem to be off on a separate journey to the course suggested by the song. Their skills are such that you may not be especially bothered. If this trio/quartet is not enough to whet your appetite, icing on the cake comes in the welcome form of Ravi Coltrane. He may not ever throw off the burden of being his father’s son (who could?) but his contribution to “Sun and Shadow” is a highpoint of the recording.

Before we reach that delight we have to negotiate the opening track. “Nuevo Montuno” revels in great piano, captivating drum patterns and some flying bass. The only problem is that they don’t interact too well — this being one of a few occasions when the parts refuse to meld into a satisfying whole. Still, the very traditional sounding tune is engaging in its own right. “Sun and Shadow” shows more cohesion and at over seven minutes allows plenty of solo space for all concerned. A sensitive ballad (“Long Time Waiting”) follows — piano and bass in a classy dialogue — and from then on it is pretty much plain sailing. The slow tempos are soothing and evocative, the snappier numbers scintillating and alive.

Special treats include the African-memory track “Procession”, which is deep and sonorous, and the folk number “Cuan Grande Es El”, played confidently as a bass solo. Benítez is equally commanding on the Mingus-like “Positano”. Acoustic sounds hold sway with the exception of the memorable “B Smooth”. Here a playful Fender Rhodes and a remarkably agile electric bass shift an above-average, jazz-funk work-out into intriguing territory, adding yet another layer onto an already intricate set of textures. If you thought Latin means one straightforward sound, this album will disabuse you of that idea. It is safe to say that there isn’t actually a weak cut — although I could live without “J Ben Jazz” — a Coltrane-led carnival-mambo that verges on pastiche.

Descarga is defined by Benítez as “an instrumental jam on top of a bass riff”. I don’t know whether that is correct but it certainly sums up what this outing is all about. There is more than enough improvisation for jazz-heads, yet the melodies of the Americas are never overwhelmed. The pulse that drives each item along has its wayward moments but makes up for that with its energy and emotional power. Above all there is a sophistication and an intelligence about both the performance and the arrangements. These guys are not just going through the motions. Traditional or modern, each composition is examined artfully and with a keen sense of adventure. As a sample of the musical and cross-cultural exchanges that go on nightly in all urban centres, but in one more than most, this is well worth getting to know.