The Paul Carlon Octet: Other Tongues
Jazz at the top of its modern game -- Latin, tight, tasty, and modern.
There is so much great jazz being made in New York these days that no one person can keep up with it all. It comes in the forms you might expect -- from major personalities like Dave Douglas and John Zorn and Dave Holland -- and in myriad sneakier forms. Sometimes you despair at having to remember the names of all these stupendous musicians. There are just too many to keep track of.
I present as evidence the Paul Carlon Octet and Carlon's second disc as a leader, Other Tongues. The group (trumpet, two reeds, two trombones, rhythm, plus singing and tapping on a few tracks) will be largely anonymous to most fans, but you'll marvel at the playing still. With most tracks cast in a Latin jazz groove, you'll want to dance. With a few tracks trading in the musical complexity of modern jazz history -- Ellington and Mingus, for starters, with dashes of Dolphy and splashes of Chick Corea for good effect -- you'll certainly want to listen.
As a tenor player, Carlon is straightforward and brawny without being retro. He is modern enough to be a latter-day Paul Gonsalves, usually pushing forward with the rhythmic syncopation that his immersion in Latin music demands. As an arranger and composer, Carlon is blissfully hard to categorize -- in the Latin camp certainly, but never contained by it. For example, "Smada" is a Latin chart that reworks the Billy Strayhorn tune, but uses a Cuban danzon and Colombian porro. The melody, harmonized for flute and wordless female vocal (Ileana Santamaria, Mongo's daughter and a bandleader in her own right), is minor and haunting, backed by a tangy brass chart. The bass-line hops with Latin groove, then two flutes harmonize. Yet the centerpiece of the track is a pedal-point drenched piano solo by John Stenger that builds up steam to a lovely, chorded climax.
A more traditional salsa feeling permeates "Boogie Down Broder", where the trombones growl and croon in up-tempo over a snappy piano montuno. Because the octet is nimble like a bop group, the start of the melody is quick and light like a Charlie Parker tune, but because the octet is rich like a big band, the track has the color and shading of a great Eddie Palmieri arrangement. Get up and dance!
Carlon's writing is often funky. "Extraordinary Rendition" is driven by a strong bass-line for bass, left-hand piano, and trombone. Drummer William "Beaver" Bausch sets up a groove backing, and then he gets to trade fours with "Rumbatap" dancer Max Pollack while the horns punch and jab behind them. "Rumbatapestry" starts with the dancer and then leads us to a bass-tenor unison line that builds and builds until the rhythm section starts to groove in an off-kilter way that almost seems like a Latin/hip-hop thing. Carlon works out over the band until everyone lays out except for the leader and Pollack. It’s a killer duet that takes the whole band back home to a layered vocal tag.
Some of the best writing is not in the Latin bag. "Street Beat" is a swaggering straight ahead chart that has the blues slink of a Horace Silver tune, but outfitted with Ellingtonian brass punches and a tenor solo by guest player Buddy Terry. "A Certain Slant of Light" is the kind of dark ballad that Mingus did so well -- all shadows and mystery, with the low brass balanced against flute and a certain greasy elegance always being suggested. Carlon's tenor plays as the lead singer, and the band shades him to darkness at each turn. Dave Smith gets in a lovely statement on trumpet, bitter and bitten like it was always 3 AM. Emily Dickinson would be proud to hear it.
There are some more "out" tracks on Other Tongues, as well. While "The Spirit Calls" is not harmonically avant-garde, its structure and general disposition is impressionistic and adventurous. Beginning with Santamaria's vocal above mbira percussion, the track slowly evolves into a Latin groove that sets up a Carlon solo that is particularly modern -- the kind of proto-Trane stuff that Branford Marsalis has been doing so well at greater length. Carlon remains concise and clean but interesting, and a gentle trombone workout takes us back to an outstanding arrangement for band and vocal, with Santamaria crying over a horn chart that echoes her in passion and phrasing.
The album closes with "Clave 66", a summation -- a Latin groove that suggests the hard bop of Silver even as it voices complexity like Mingus. It's an appropriate place to end -- fun, interesting, and surprising. Just because you've never heard of Carlon, that doesn't mean he isn't ready, willing, and able to stun you. Under the flute solo by Anton Denner, the Latin beat edges toward funk at times, then it slips back into tradition. Like the rest of the disc, this track goes where it wants to with ease, the great band just doing its thing, making great music that pleases with graceful excitement.
Other Tongues might stay in rotation on your player for so long that you'll have to keep glancing back at the case to remember the band's name: the Paul Carlon Octet. Paul Carlon -- a name worth remembering after all.