One of last year’s highlights was a Latin jazz session from bassist John Benitez. Descarga in New York was a mixture of modernist funk and Cuban grooves that seemed to sum up one version at least of the Nu Yorican vibe. Benitez is involved in this equally enjoyable session which is, if anything, even more cosmopolitan and cross-cultural an affair than his own effort. Manhattan Vibes is the first outing under his own name for Rafalides and I think his career could be well worth following.
They say jazz sales are struggling again, but if discs like this were pushed towards the post-acid jazz crowd, then I think they would do much better than with the Mainstream fan to whom they are mostly, at present, directed. Though not at all digital or “broken beatish”, the album has much to offer the denizens of the club and dancefloor jazz world. I know for a fact that UK clubbers of a West London persuasion would certainly take Rafalides to heart, if only they were aware of his existence.
The Cubano-Braziliana market won’t quite do, for I’m not sure the music is Latin enough, in any orthodox sense, to appeal to purists (assuming that genre attracts purists). The sort of audience I envisage taking to this record is one that is not scared of a bit of jazz improvisation, yet values rhythm and funk over complexity. An audience that is comfortable with a playlist that might include Nitegroove’s Abstract Afro Lounge, the Brecker Brothers, some early ’70s Bobby Hutcherson, and something chilled-out from Rainer Truby. Jazzy rather than jazz per se, if you see what I mean.
What we are talking about is an esoteric but essentially undemanding mélange of styles, always with a strong pulse and superbly fronted by the marimbas or vibes of the group leader. Rafalides, who is Greek by birth, came to New York partly to study with Gary Burton, a vibes player whose profile was once much higher than it is now. The younger man has taken Burton’s freer approach to the instrument (i.e., he owes little to Milt Jackson) and linked it to an evident love of Latin, Afro, and old soul jazz rhythms. The jazz-funk drummer, Steve Hass and the excellent Benitez are his main allies, but there are crucial contributions from Vinny Valentino (guitar), Mary Wormworth (vocals), Luisito Quintero (percussion) and, almost inevitably these days, trumpeter Randy Brecker.
The material is sufficiently, varied although a Latin-Cuban feel runs through each outing. There are a couple of moments I could have lived without (for instance, Valentino’s rocky guitar on the otherwise excellent nu-funk of “Pocket”), but mostly the playing is fresh and the tunes well chosen. I didn’t even mind the cover of the Beatles’ “Fool on the Hill”. Jazz adaptations of Fab Four tunes are usually disastrous but this one is surprisingly sprightly and effective.
The album opens strongly with the savannah-evoking “Flamingo Strut” with Wormworth’s haunting vocal line adding a “Creole Love Call” element. Ellington is more directly referenced in yet another take on “Caravan”, increasingly the key composition for the whole history of multi-cultural fusions. The group offer a robust but loose-limbed reading which avoids the overly-reverential approach that has resulted in rather too many watered-down versions of this crucial piece of Ellingtonia.
Other notable tracks include the slick, cabaret-Latin swing of “La Essencia de Guanganco” and a gorgeous, easy-paced “Tango Fantasy in C” (wherein Valentino redeems himself with some very superior embellishments). Another standard, “All the Things You Are”, is taken at a lively tempo that is invigorating but does not crush the charm of that famous melody. Rafalides own “Sweet” which closes the session is just that — sweet and soulful.
Vibes trios have a minor but significant role in the jazz tradition. Although Rafalides owes little to either, this group is less Red Norvo and more Cal Tjader in both aims and impact. This is music to move and groove to, rather than to contemplate and internalise. Expressive, at times flamboyant and always mobile — they must be great live. Nothing crude or clichéd about the arrangements, though. Brecker coasts it a bit perhaps, but there is subtlety and sensitivity in the collective playing and Rafalides has already developed a style that is recognisably his own. Unpretentious, pan-ethnic jazz for today’s tastes, Manhattan Vibes provides yet another example of the importance and viability of that Latin impulse for the current scene.