Caribbean Jazz Project: Birds of a Feather

Jason MacNeil

Caribbean Jazz Project

Birds of a Feather

Label: Concord
US Release Date: 2003-08-26
UK Release Date: 2003-09-15

Celebrating the tenth anniversary of its formation from a special concert at New York City's Central Park Zoo a decade ago, the Caribbean Jazz Project is one of those fusion of genres that makes the listener no longer question or speculate if certain styles were combined. Fronted by founding member and former Spyro Gyra "charter member" Dave Samuels, who lends most of the lighter melodic touches courtesy of the vibraphones and marimbas, the group's follow-up to last year's Grammy winning The Gathering is another step in a good direction. The opening song happens to be the title track, a light and reflective piece that changes styles as often as it does momentum. Samuels and drummer Dafnis Prieto carry the brunt of the track as it moves from Latin jazz to a loose Caribbean feel and back.

The group takes it down quite a lot for "Minor Mood", a track that sounds like Miles vacationing somewhere in the Keys. But it has a nice vibe running through the loose and carefree instrumental. Ray Vega's trumpet is stellar on this track, and his fellow musicians give him all the space and time he deserves. A slight amount of percussion emerges as it evolves, but by then Vega has laid the foundation. Percussionist Robert Quintero and Samuels also are important. "On the Road" ups the ante and seems to have more urgency, if that's possible given the stylistic mix. This is the first true toe-tapper or head-bobber number, as it's extremely well done, with the band playing more as a unit than at any other point thus far. And guitarist Romero Lubambo's work on the latter portions is quite appealing.

"Turnabout", which Samuels refers to as a baiao, has an eclectic lounge-meets-Latin-meets-Tango quality to it, stopping and starting while the percussion maintains a frantic Santana-esque pace. Unfortunately, this tends to go off the rails somewhat after the first few moments. Vega returns with a trumpet solo that seems to work against rather than with the overall sound. Samuels corrects the direction with a lengthy and meticulous vibraphone solo, sounding as if he's working with four hands and not two. "Against the Law" has far too many lightweight moments starting off, although the rhumba style courtesy of Prieto is impressive. The monotony of the song has it going nowhere quickly, despite Samuels trying his best to revive it.

One of the greatest aspects to this album is the band's reinvention of songs, starting off with a cover of Herbie Hancock's "Tell Me a Bedtime Story". Staying true to the original but spicing it up, Caribbean Jazz Project hits gold early and often. Winding and weaving, it's dreamy in spaces and flawlessly melodic almost to a fault. Possessing that bounce found on earlier efforts, the group is having a lot of adventurous fun on this track and it's quite easy to hear it. Mellow is the theme of this record, with the term defined during "Valencia 1". Evoking images of a cruise liner cabaret or lounge act, the track is relatively good but not exactly remarkable. Lubambo's flamenco approach makes it tolerable.

"Picture Frame" is probably the album's great song -- a frantic percussion that underlines the slower jazz nuances and Latin touches. The complexity is apparent but not thrown at the listener haphazardly. And just as it runs out of steam, becoming repetitive, it appropriately dies out. The magical "Blue" doesn't separate itself from aforementioned number, but the keeper is the closing "Weird Nightmare". Covering Charlie Mingus is an arduous task at the best of times, yet Caribbean Jazz Project incorporate the best of both musical worlds. As Samuels says in the press kit, "Caribbean defines part of what we do, and jazz defines the other part." If only all projects worked with this verve and ingenuity.

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