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If searching for the holy grail of Latin jazz, look no further than the cultural melting pot that was New York City in 1943 and the genre-defining recording of “Tangá” by Machito and his Afro-Cubans big band. Written by the group’s Afro-Cuban arranger and multi-instrumentalist Mario Bauzá, the work represents the first time jazz harmony and open spaces for horn solos were successfully married to the seething undercurrent of an Afro-Cuban rhythm. A signature bell pattern called the clave and the central role of timbales, conga drums and bongos in the rhythm section cemented the new style. A flurry of interest in the exotic hybrid followed. By the end of the decade, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, considered a godfather of the emerging style, and saxophonist Charlie Parker added the verve of bebop phrasing. Arranger and composer Arturo “Chico” O’Farrill, conguero Chano Pozo and Machito, among many others, fortified the evolving partnership through their innovative use of Afro-Cuban rhythmic elements.
The widespread popularity in the 1950s of mambo and cha-cha-chá rhythms fueled interest in Afro-Cuban dance music and its stylistic cousin, Latin jazz. The decade launched the careers of a group of artists who in time would become viewed as founding fathers of Latin jazz. They represented an ethnically diverse group of visionaries that included trailblazers such as Tito Puente, Mongo Santamaria, Sabu Martinez, Willie Bobo, Ray Barretto and Cándido Camero, among many others.
As the decades rolled by, Latin jazz groups proved a welcoming environment for musicians of diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds and nationalities. Where the jazz big bands that preceded them were mostly highly segregated, Latin ensembles boasted an open-door policy that welcomed legions of Jewish, Italian-American, Anglo, African-American and Latino musicians. Collaborations among name artists were another hallmark. Puente shared billings with pianist George Shearing, alto saxophonist Phil Woods, trumpeter Maynard Ferguson and clarinetist Woody Herman, and Poncho Sanchez cut dates with trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, saxophonist Eddie Harris and vocalist Dianne Reeves.
While the bebop-meets-Afro-Cuban-rhythms stylistic template remains an unbending point-of-reference for some Latin jazz stalwarts, it is no longer considered heresy to step beyond those bounds and explore new influences. For several decades, adventurous musicians in Panama, Peru, Venezuela, Colombia, the Dominican Republic and other countries have been experimenting with the use of the folkloric idioms of their indigenous music in improvisational settings. In many instances, the results have been exhilarating. At the same time, a cadre of young instrumentalists, composers, arrangers and vocalists from Cuba and Puerto Rico have refreshed the voluminous contributions to Latin jazz that their forefathers made several generations ago.
To get a sense of how Latin jazz has continued to exert its powerful influence, JAZZIZ asked five notable musicians to tell us about five recordings that they found particularly inspiring, recordings they would eagerly recommend to friends. Their selections range in release date from 1955 to 2019, a span of more than six decades, and are not presented in order of preference. - Mark Holston
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Jazz guitarist, singer and composer Meza is among a growing number of Chilean musicians who have established successful careers in the U.S. in the past decade. Her latest recording, Ámbar (Sony Masterworks), 2019, features the Nectar Orchestra. While not a Latin jazz artist herself, she has a keen interest in the genre and its most inventive practitioners.
Claudia Acuña, Wind From the South (Verve, 2000)
As a fellow Chilean musician, I grew up listening to Claudia and she has always been a huge inspiration. The arrangements on this album are amazing! She managed to fuse our folkloric traditions and other influences with the fiery aspect of jazz improvisation and harmonic sophistication. Her vocalizing expanded the concept of Latin jazz beyond just Cuban and Brazilian styles.
Guillermo Klein & Los Guachos, Filtros (Sunnyside, 2008)
Klein is one of our time’s greatest composers and arrangers and his band is composed of some of the best improvisers in the world, including saxophonists Miguel Zenón and Chris Cheek. Originally from Argentina, Guillermo explores such folkloric rhythms as chacarera and zamba, but also has a personal and quite intricate rhythmic approach as a pianist to his compositions, which makes his music super interesting.
Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Suite Caminos (5Passion, 2015)
An absolute master at his instrument and always pushing the envelope, the keyboardist creates an adventurous journey on this album, experimenting with synth sounds, oblique melodies mixed with Yoruba chants, and rhythms. The session includes a great collaboration with guitarist John McLaughlin and is a true testament to the fact that the music is always evolving.
Edmar Castañeda & Grégoire Maret, Harp vs. Harp (ACT, 2019)
I love the textures that the harp and harmonica create together. Playing the llanera harp, Edmar celebrates his rural Colombian music traditions, and this session shows both his versatility and the playfulness that can be achieved between two musicians of strikingly different backgrounds. I loved the repertoire and that in an instant they can go from a very intimate to a dynamic vibe.
Grupo Irakere, Irakere (Areíto in Cuba/Columbia in USA, 1978)
I remember that this LP was being shared among musicians in the Chilean scene when I was growing up. I still didn’t understand very well what jazz or Latin jazz, for that matter, was. But this album by the Havana-based group led by keyboardist Chucho Valdés was how I conceived music. It was not Afro-Cuban, not jazz, not rock, not funk, but it was all that at the same time. No boundaries, just music as a fluid expression.
A multi-instrumentalist known primarily as a trap drummer, composer and arranger, Muñoz is a longtime California resident who was born and raised in Costa Rica. His series of self-produced albums have won critical acclaim for their sophisticated melodies, complex arrangements and multiple influences, from flamenco and tango to a broad panorama of tropical Latin styles. His current recording is The Infinite Dream (Pelin Music, 2019).
Cal Tjader, Cal Tjader’s Latin Concert (Fantasy, 1959)
This live recording by vibraphonist Tjader’s quintet has everything you wish for from a traditional Latin jazz ensemble: great charts, an organic, tight swinging sound that shifts from cooking at low heat to burning with intensity, and a deep pocket. The percussion duo of Mongo Santamaria on congas and Willie Bobo on timbales in this type of setting is unmatchable.
Eddie Palmieri, Unfinished Masterpiece (Coco, 1975)
A combination of impeccable big band arrangements, with Palmieri’s pianistics spiced by Monk, McCoy Tyner and even Cecil Taylor at times, driving the music with fierce guajeos [repeated phrases] and aggressive, expanded piano voicings. Singer Lalo Rodriguez (only 17 at the time), along with a star-studded band, created what I consider a “finished masterpiece.”
Miguel Zenón, Jíbaro (Marsalis Music, 2005)
Except for the drum chair, this quartet has been playing together for close to 20 years, allowing itself to develop a tight, lyrical, complex and exploratory sound, all immersed into the essence of the jazz tradition along with the Puerto Rican folklore. The simplicity of the island’s music, deconstructed by Miguel on alto sax, seems to always permeate everything he touches. Modern Latin jazz at its very best.
Ralph Irizarry, Ralph Irizarry & Timbalaye (Shanachie, 1998)
The debut album by a very forward-thinking and extremely creative ensemble quickly established a loyal following. While remaining deeply rooted in the Afro-Caribbean tradition, Timbalaye often expanded the concept of what a Latin jazz combo could do. Under the leadership of master timbaleroIrizarry, the band truly became a legend in its own time.
Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Live in Havana (Messidor, 1987)
An open window into the genesis of a master musician. A little green, as was to be expected then, Rubalcaba was relying perhaps a bit too much on technique and driven by a frantic spirit. He eventually settled down and became one of the greatest pianists in the history of jazz, Afro-Cuban or otherwise.
An ace arranger and producer for salsa and Latin jazz artists, Beavers is also one of the top trombonists in Latin music and a proponent of salsa dura — hard-swinging, traditional salsa. Of Spanish and North American parentage, he has been a mainstay in legendary groups such as The Spanish Harlem Orchestra and pianist Eddie Palmieri’s various ensembles. Beaver’s current release, Sol (Circle 9), is a funky update on salsa-laced Latin soul that features new salsa vocal sensation Jeremy Bosch.
Machito, Kenya (Roulette, 1958)
This could be considered a veritable encyclopedia on Latin jazz during its formative years in the U.S. Machito [born Francisco Grillo], leader of The Afro-Cubans big band, and arranger Mario Bauzá teamed up with such jazz luminaries as “Doc” Cheatham and Julian “Cannonball” Adderley to deliver an album of stunning scope and imagination. It was renowned for the inventiveness of its orchestrations, which were all firmly structured around the key concepts of the clave [the foundational rhythmic pattern of Afro-Cuban music].
Don Grolnick, Medianoche (Warner Bros., 1996)
This little-known gem, led by pianist Grolnick, has been one of my favorites for well over two decades. The original compositions are supple in nature and masterfully crafted. What floors me is the production quality of the album. The contributions to our Latin jazz genre by the likes of Michael Brecker and Dave Valentín, and Latin percussion legends Milton Cardona, Don Alias and Steve Berrios are, in my opinion, historic.
Eddie Palmieri, Palmas (Elektra Nonesuch, 1994)
When I heard this recording the first time in 1995, I was utterly shocked. I couldn’t believe the aggressiveness and grit coming from the speakers, particularly from the piano of maestro Palmieri and from my future trombone teacher, Conrad Herwig. I had never heard someone sit on the upper register of the trombone like that, executed with such fire. There had never been an album of Latin jazz with the ferocity of Palmas, nor has there been one since.
Marvin Diz, Habla El Tambor (self-released, 2008)
A shocking scope of vision on this one. The track “Yemaya Mother” was introduced to me some years ago by my good friend, conguero George Delgado. Listen how the energy builds from the Yoruba [Afro-Cuban religion] chant and lends power and meaning throughout. When you have the principal percussionists of the New York scene all on one session, you can’t go wrong: Pedrito Martinez, Giovanni Hidalgo, Little Johnny Rivero, Richie Flores, Luisito Quintero, Bobby Allende and Ralph Irizarry.
Ralph Irizarry & Timbalaye, Best Kept Secret (Shanachie, 2000)
Ralph took me aside one day in 2013 after a session at the after-school program I established, the Harlem School of Urban Music. He asked me if had I heard about his group, Timbalaye. Sadly, I hadn’t. He described the countless hours they would rehearse before performances and recordings, and the evidence is clear on this release. It is one of the most technically impressive and transcendent Latin jazz recordings ever.
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Brachfield’s life story is a prime example of being in the right place at the right time. For an aspiring flutist, what could have been better than to have been in New York City in the late 1960s and ’70s during the peak of the Latin music explosion in the Big Apple? She studied with and performed alongside a long list of artists that can truly be called legendary, from Mauricio Smith, Hubert Laws, and Eddie Daniels to Bobby Rodriguez, Joe Quijano, Dave Valentín and countless others. Today, Brachfield can take her rightful place in this pantheon of flute greats. Her current recording is Brazilian Whispers (Origin, 2020).
Tony Martinez & The Cuban Power, Mafereful (Blue Jackel, 1999)
Born in the provincial Cuban city of Camagüey, Tony studied popular and classical music at the local conservatory, focusing on alto sax and piano. I love this recording because it combines the intricacy and power of Cuban rhythms with the expansion of jazz harmonies. This perspective is deeply rooted in Afro-Cuban rhythms and the island nation’s music culture, including the contemporary mode pioneered by Irakere. Tony has found great success in Western Europe.
Sabu Martinez, Palo Congo (Blue Note, 1957)
This is a classic Latin jazz album that I believe has been sadly overlooked. Born in New York City’s Spanish Harlem, Sabu was a contemporary of Cuban conga drum player Chano Pozo, renowned for his historic collaborations with trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie. Sabu was widely recorded as a conguero in the late 1940s and ’50s, and his choice of music on this storied album is steeped in the tradition of Cuba’s folkloric son and has an amazing array of fantastic musicians, including tres [Cuban guitar] legend Arsenio Rodriguez.
Dave Valentín, Live at the Blue Note (GRP, 1988)
This Valentín record is my absolute favorite. The flutist is at the top of his game musically and technically, as are all the other musicians on the recording, including pianist and longtime Valentín music director Bill O’Connell and conguero Giovanni Hidalgo. Coming from his charanga [a vintage Cuban style featuring violins and flute] roots, Dave was able to expand the music form and bring it to new heights and innovations.
Bill O’ Connell and the Afro Caribbean Ensemble, Wind Off the Hudson (Savant, 2019)
I love this recording because of the choice of music, where Bill, as the arranger and pianist, combines traditional Latin styles with progressive elements in a fluid and seamless manner. He has also chosen the crème of the crème as far as musicians in the field go, including trumpeter Alex Sipiagin and trombonist Conrad Herwig. This recording to me exemplifies how non-Latinos can play this music with as much expertise and authenticity as the best Latinos.
Andy Narell, Sakeshó (Heads Up, 2002)
This is one of my absolute favorite albums across all genres! The steel pannist and his amazing ensemble combine Caribbean rhythms with jazz harmonies in a seamless groove moving in and out of each selection on the recording. Although this is not what one would call a traditional Latin jazz album, I feel it is right up there in terms of excellence and innovation in representing the music.
This Puerto Rican trumpet virtuoso and keeper of the flame remains loyal to the basic stylistic formula that launched the Latin jazz movement more than seven decades ago: hard bop soloing over fiery Afro-Caribbean rhythms. His three-decade-old ensemble The Turnaround is all but a Latin incarnation of The Jazz Messengers. Sepúlveda has performed and recorded with virtually every Latin jazz icon, from Tito Puente to his cousin, Eddie Palmieri. His most recent recording is This Is Latin Jazz (HighNote, 2021).
Ray Barretto, The Other Road (Fania, 1973)
The interesting thing is that Fania released this instrumental Latin jazz album after Ray had a run of big salsa hits for the label. It was totally unexpected — a true left-field hit. I was just a little kid at the time, and it made a lasting impression. It was the first time I’d heard “Round About Midnight!” Ray was on congas, and the band was loaded with international talent, including Colombian Edy Martínez on Fender Rhodes, Panamanian trap drummer Billy Cobham and flutist Artie Webb from the States. A classic of classics.
Tito Puente and His Latin Ensemble, On Broadway (Concord Picante, 1983)
Tito recorded so many amazing albums, that some truly great ones tend to get overlooked. This one is special, with Alfredo de la Fé on violin, pianist Jorge Dalto, Mario Rivera on woodwinds, and Jerry González playing congas and flugelhorn. My wife asked me what kind of a guy Tito was, and I told her that off stage, he was funny, you couldn’t know a nicer person. But on stage, he was all business.
Kenny Dorham, Afro-Cuban (Blue Note, 1955)
I took this album to play for my band, to show them what we wanted to accomplish. With Carlos “Patato” Valdés playing congas, a leader like Kenny on trumpet, and hard bop jazz musicians in the group, they produced an incredible album. When I decided to create my group The Turnaround, I said to myself, this is what I want my band to sound like.
Machito, Kenya (Roulette, 1958)
This incredible album is special for me because of the presence of my dear friend Ray Santos. Ray is mostly known as one of the greatest arrangers of our music, but on this historic session, he played tenor saxophone. There was so much talent on hand — it was the definition of an all-star band. René Hernández was the pianist and primary arranger, and such luminaries as saxophonist Cannonball Adderley, trombonist Eddie Bert and percussionist “Patato” Valdés were in the ranks.
Jerry González, Rumba Para Monk (Sunnyside, 1989)
When I moved from Puerto Rico back to New York about four decades ago, I became fascinated by the Fort Apache group of the González brothers. They could adapt the rhumba rhythm to jazz and not lose the spirit of the music. It was incredible. This album, led by Jerry on flugelhorn and percussion, features interpretations of eight compositions by Thelonious Monk. It’s unbelievable that I have never recorded a Monk tune. Maybe someday!