For more than 20 years, saxophonist Will Vinson has been an integral player on the New York City jazz scene, establishing himself as a sideman and leader with a distinctive sound. Among the musicians who hold him in high esteem, pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba recruited the London-born Vinson for his quartet, recording the 2015 album Suite Caminos and 2016’s Charlie with the saxophonist. Also in 2016, Vinson recorded an album under his own name, Perfectly Out of Place, for Rubalcaba’s 5Passion label. The pianist lends his talents to the recording, as well, playing both piano and Fender Rhodes on a set of Vinson compositions that prize mood, emotion and atmosphere. Rounding out the core group, guitarist Mike Moreno, bassist Matt Penman and drummer Jeff Ballard lend sensitive accompaniment, supporting and augmenting Vinson’s leads on alto and soprano sax. The strings of the MIVOS Quartet add a noir-ish feel to several songs, including the opening “Desolation Tango.” Beginning with a haunting string introduction, the tune lives up to its title before the band enters, with Ballard’s shimmering drums, Rubalcaba’s burbling Fender and Vinson’s ghostly soprano creating a bleak yet compelling soundscape. Vinson would reprise the title track to Perfectly Out of Place on his 2020 OWL Trio release Life of the Party (with guitarist Lage Lund and bassist Orlando le Fleming), to which Kurt Elling wrote and sang lyrics.
At the age of 50, Seamus Blake has covered a good deal of ground. The saxophonist, who was born in London, raised in Canada and made his name in New York City, gained notice with his early recordings in the ’90s and earned a deserved spotlight while touring with John Scofield. Like Sco, Blake expanded his range beyond traditional jazz, embracing funk and rock while never fully abandoning straightahead influences. That wide-ranging palette would be on full display on his 2015 release Superconductor (5Passion), which found Blake in settings from intimate to orchestral, utilizing his rich tone on tenor and soprano saxophones and delving into electronica with EWI (electric wind instrument) and other synthesized sounds. “Send in the Clones,” for example, begins with what almost sounds like white noise, or an approaching subway train, before Blake enters with an echoey distorted horn backed by Matt Garrison’s funky electric bass lines and Nate Smith’s skittering drums. Scott Kinsey’s keyboards add texture as the song morphs and develops, and Blake’s sinewy tenor, beginning at about the six-minute mark, builds in intensity and carries the tune to an exciting conclusion. Superconductor is full of surprises, featuring performances by Scofield and Gonzalo Rubalcaba as well as three gorgeous orchestral cuts, and was honored with a Juno Award nomination for Jazz Album of the Year.
“Last Continent” is among three tracks that saxophonist Seamus Blake recorded with orchestral backing on his 2015 release Superconductor (5Passion). Written by “super” conductor Vickie Yang and arranged by composer Guillermo Klein, the track features an eight-piece ensemble of brass, woodwinds and strings augmenting Blake’s jazz rhythm section of pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba, bassist Matt Clohesy and drummer Nate Smith. The doleful sound of bass clarinet (played by reedist John Ellis) underlines the melancholy feel of the piece, a mood that carries over into Blake’s sighing, pure-toned soprano sax lines and the lush, pastel colors of viola, violin, cello, English horn, clarinet and flute. Blake’s soloing grows more impassioned in the song’s denouement, while Rubalcaba, Clohesy and Smith offer understated but never lackluster support. The tracks for the album were recorded at Avatar Studios in New York, a Rubalcaba favorite at which he continues to record in its current incarnation as Power Station.
“With the Tide,” Alex Sipiagin’s composition from his 2013 release From Reality and Back (5Passion), musically dispels any Zen-like, “go-with-the-flow” notions that its title might imply. From the onset, the Russian-born, New York-based trumpeter’s composition is rife with tension, its pizzicato bass, drums and piano intro setting an anxious template for what follows. Clusters of notes from Sipiagin’s horn, Seamus Blake’s tenor sax and Gonzalo Rubalcaba’s piano — as well as bassist’s Dave Holland’s agitated bass lines and Antonio Sanchez’s relentless drumming — add to the claustrophobic atmosphere. Skillfully blending bebop tradition with more modern, introspective expression, Sipiagin earned his bona fides in the ranks of the Mingus Big Band, the Gil Evans Orchestra, the Michael Brecker Quindectet and in several settings alongside Holland. The trumpeter’s latest recording, a quartet date for Posi-Tone titled Upstream, was released earlier this year.
Hailing from a musical family in his native Cuba, Yosvanny Terry brings a wealth of cultural and spiritual influences to his exciting jazz hybrid. The saxophonist, composer and percussionist employs the rhythms and traditions of the Arará culture which maintains close ties to its African roots, specifically the Dahomey people whose music and religion survived the harsh exodus in the bellies of slave ships to the New World. Terry, in turn, brought these traditions with him upon settling in New York City and playing with the bands of Eddie Palmieri, Roy Hargrove and Dave Douglas, among others. In 2014, Terry showcased his well-realized aesthetic on New Throned King (5Passion), an album that interweaves post-bop within the indigenous elements that are as natural to him as breathing. And his accompanying musicians, united under the banner Ye-Dé-Gbé (which translates as “with the approval of the spirits”), could hardly be more simpatico. The core group of Terry, who plays soprano and alto sax and percussion, pianist Osmany Paredes; guitarist Dominick Kanza; bassist Yunior Terry (Yosvanny’s brother) and trap drummer Justin Brown are joined by percussionists Pedrito Martinez and Román Diaz. Impassioned call-and-response vocals thread through the album’s title track, which rides along a mesmerizing rhythmic stream. Terry seamlessly insinuates himself into the mix, his horn effortlessly surfing the tide, and briefly hands the baton to Paredes, who acquits himself beautifully throughout. New Throned King is a welcome extension of the roots-based modern Latin jazz pioneered by bands such as Jerry Gonzalez’s Fort Apache and Steve Berrios’ Son Bacheche.
Spanish flamenco singer Esperanza Fernández first met Gonzalo Rubalcaba when the pianist came to Seville to participate in a documentary about Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona. The pair combined forces on Lecuona’s “Malagueña,” displaying a remarkable synergy in a stark and powerful collaboration that grows increasingly energetic — complete with the handclaps, fingersnaps and foottaps of a couple of flamenco musicians. (Find it on Youtube.) The collaboration led Fernández to further research the history of Cuban music, and she became fascinated with the singer Benny Moré. Known as the “Barbarian of Rhythm,” Moré was a master vocal improviser who gained fame in his native Cuba in the 1940s and ’50s and worked with innovators such as Bebo Valdés and Ernesto Duarte Brito. Searching for a Spanish counterpart to Moré, Fernández landed on legendary flamenco singer Manolo Caracol, deciding that their music would pair well on an album. She then brought the concept to Rubalcaba, who loved the idea and ended up releasing the recording of vocal-piano duets, 2018’s Oh Vida!, on his 5Passion label. Performing music by maestros Moré and Caracol, the duo draws a connection between the seemingly disparate worlds of son cubano and flamenco. On the Moré bolero “Tu Me Sabes Comprender,” our selection, Rubalcaba opens the tune with a dramatic flourish that’s matched in intensity by Fernández’s extraordinary cri de coeur. The emotions become more complex as the song develops, both pianist and vocalist expressing a range of human experience. Even for listeners who don’t speak Spanish, this is heady stuff.
Equally at home in the worlds of Latin and American jazz, Ignacio Berroa has established a sterling reputation as a first-call drummer, working alongside giants such as Dizzy Gillespie, Tito Puente and Charlie Haden, to name a few. However, the Cuban native, who immigrated to New York in 1980, has only released a couple of albums under his own name, including the adventurous 2014 recording Heritage and Passion (5Passion). Utilizing an electro-acoustic sound, Berroa put a singular spin on music from his homeland as well as his adopted home, adding synthesizer and MIDI effects to a varied songlist encompassing, for instance, interpretations of Cuban composer Ignacio Piñero’s “La Perla del Eden” and Miles Davis’ “Nardis.” The drummer blurs the lines between his dual influences on a thrilling mash-up of Ornette Coleman’s “When Will the Blues Leave” and Ray Barretto’s “Vine Pa’echar Candela,” on which his traps and Mauricio Herrera’s hand-drums drive the action. Saxophonist Mark Shim and pianist Luis Perdomo step lively to the heated rhythms, which are undergirded by bassist Ricardo Rodriguez’s pulse-quickening pizzicato. Meanwhile, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, the album’s producer, lays down shimmering synthesizer accents before Adam Rogers cools the proceedings with a slinky guitar solo. Berroa’s eloquence, evident throughout, is particularly showcased in his playing behind Rogers, finding just the right balance between muscle and nuance.
The friendship between Gonzalo Rubalcaba and Charlie Haden began in 1986 and lasted until Haden’s passing in 2014. It was a relationship that originated while Haden was touring Cuba and was introduced to the young pianist, who was generating a buzz in the jazz world. That buzz was amplified after Rubalcaba performed with Haden in a trio with drummer Paul Motian at the Havana Jazz Festival. The veteran bassist became a Rubalcaba champion, and while he encountered insurmountable obstacles in bringing the pianist to the U.S., they were able to perform and record together in Europe and Canada, and Haden was instrumental in bringing Rubalcaba to the Blue Note label. After Rubalcaba became established in the U.S., he and Haden continued to work on projects together, resulting in Grammy-winning recordings such as Nocturne and Land of the Sun. In 2016, Rubalcaba paid homage to his friend and colleague with the release of Charlie (5Passion), a hushed and quite moving collection of songs by Haden, all but one of which he had played with the bassist. “Bay City,” which he had performed live with Haden and Motian on the 1997 release The Montréal Tapes, begins quietly with just Rubalcaba and bassist Matt Brewer. The introspective intro gives way to a bluesy bounce as Will Vinson’s noir-ish sax and Marcus Gilmore’s brushes enter the mix, setting the stage for Rubalcaba’s restrained yet resonant solo, revealing a more modest and mature player than he was 25 years ago. Truly an ensemble piece, the track allows everyone to shine, providing ample space for guitarist Adam Rogers’ supple guitar lines and Brewer’s gorgeous acoustic bass, which end the song with a lovely coda.
The title of Gonzalo Rubalcaba’s 2015 recording SuiteCaminos (5Passion) translates to “Roads Suite,” and it does indeed represent several routes traveled by the pianist and composer during his long career. Involving acoustic and electronic instrumentation, the program encompasses modern and traditional jazz and Afro-Cuban music, the latter of which bears echoes of ancient religions that were brought to the New World with the slave trade. These worlds collide spectacularly on tracks such as “Santa Meta,” included here. Batá drums provide a fiery rhythmic foundation, contrasting with and augmenting trap drummer Ernesto Simpson’s nuanced yet exciting jazz expressions. Rubalcaba’s scintillating synth textures and resonant acoustic piano are equally dramatic, while his Fender Rhodes solo cools the temperature a few degrees. Trumpeter Alex Sipiagin and saxophonists Will Vinson and Seamus Blake act as a dynamic instrumental chorus, and Sipiagin’s Miles-like solo (starting around the 5.45-minute mark) is a standout of this epic tune. A dreamy wash of sound precedes a vocal chorus of Cuban singers (including percussionist Pedrito Martinez) led by Sonyalsi “Sonia” Feldman and evoking the Yoruba “saints” of the song’s title. The piece concludes with Rubalcaba’s chiming piano, its ringing sustain fading like the ghostly figures that grace the album cover. Suite Caminos was nominated for a Grammy for Best Latin Jazz Album in 2016.
When Gonzalo Rubalcaba invited longtime colleagues Ron Carter and Jack DeJohnette to join him on the sessions for his recent release, Skyline (5Passion), the pianist had a request: Would they bring along a few songs of their own? Specifically, Rubalcaba wanted to play Carter’s “Gypsy” and “Quiet Place,” and DeJohnette’s “Silver Hollow” and “Ahmad the Terrible,” each song hailing from these vaunted players’ discographies of the late ’70s and early ’80s. Of course, they obliged. And why wouldn’t they? Bassist Carter and drummer DeJohnette were already legendary figures in the jazz world, as sidemen and leaders, when they lent their talents and influence to the emerging Cuban pianist in the early ’90s. Their marquee names boosted Rubalcaba’s reputation on stage and in the studio, and the musicians formed bonds that continue to this day. That link was very much in evidence when, in 2018, Rubalcaba reached out to his longtime colleagues, and they convened at the Power Station studios in New York City for the musical reunion that’s captured on Skyline. A relaxed aura pervades the session, as the trio dips into songs by each of the participants, as well as a couple of Cuban standards and one improvised piece recorded during a break in the action. “Silver Hollow” hails from DeJohnette’s 1978 album New Directions, and he recorded it again, with Rubalcaba, on the pianist’s 1991 release The Blessing. The trio reprises it here, the pianist opening the piece with a deeply introspective solo. Carter and DeJohnette enter quietly, the bassist’s resonant pizzicato and the drummer’s subtle sticking the very essence of restraint. Melancholy but not somber, Rubalcaba meanders through the melody in excellent company, Carter’s bass notes as rich as ever and DeJohnette evoking shivers with the delicacy of his touch.
Almost from the beginning of his 5Passion label, Gonazalo Rubalcaba let it be known that his scope extended beyond traditional jazz and Afro-Cuban music. Freed from working for someone else’s imprint, the pianist indulged his muse, as is evident on recordings such as 2011’s XXICentury, which blends electric and acoustic instrumentation and an ancient-to-future aesthetic that he would employ on other recordings, as well. Over the course of two discs, Rubalcaba, on acoustic piano and synths, and his core trio of bassist Matt Brewer and drummer Marcus Gilmore bring their singular approach to a program of original music and interpretations of modern-jazz compositions by Bill Evans, Paul Bley and Lennine Tristano. Pedrito Martinez adds percussive muscle to several selections, as well as impassioned vocals to the track “Oshun,” a shout-out to a Yoruban deity, in both short and long versions. The briefer track loses none of its grandeur or mystery, with Rubalcaba dancing elegantly atop the primal rhythms of heartbeat bass, surf-splash cymbals and driving hand-drums. Subtle synth intonations provide a dreamlike haze and chiming accents behind Martinez’s vocals, and the track fades with the sounds of just voice and drums. In a way, XXI Century set the template for much of what would follow on the label.
Conservatory-trained Havana native Armando Gola has been playing the bass since the age of 13, developing a mastery of the instrument and a soulful tone that’s been prized by jazz notables such as Arturo Sandoval, Hector Martignon and Gonzalo Rubalcaba, in whose bands he’s played. In fact, Gola’s a long-standing member of Rubalcaba’s New Cuban Quartet and has recorded with the pianist on his Grammy-nominated 2004 release Paseo and on the 2013 album Volcán. In 2014, the bassist recorded his first solo album, Gola Elektrik, for Rubalcaba’s 5Passion label, showcasing his fluid sound on fretted and unfretted electric bass, as well as other instruments. Moody and cinematic, “Remember November,” our selection, features the bassist both plugged and un-, as he supports and converses with Rubalcaba’s piano and Mario “El Indio” Morejon’s trumpet. Gola also plays guitar and keyboards on the track, which is further layered by Alain Orbiz’s cello. Meanwhile, drummer Ludwig Afonso is a master of understatement as he delicately underlines the wistfulness of the song. This ensemble piece allows Gola to shine as a deft and sensitive colorist, which he proves to be throughout the album, whether playing the melody or ensconced in the rhythm section.
Fé was not the first solo piano album from Gonzalo Rubalcaba. In fact, he won a Latin Grammy for his 2006 recording titled Solo. The 2010 release is, however, a remarkably moving and personal statement from the pianist, one that launched his 5Passion label on an auspicious and highly artistic note. Throughout the program, Rubalcaba weaves themes and improvisations, as well as pieces dedicated to each of his three children, and a couple of standards that held profound meaning for him. In addition to the Miles Davis-Bill Evans jewel “Blue in Green,” he also offers two reads of Dizzy Gillespie’s “Con Alma,” tender interpretations that must roll back the years for Rubalcaba. Gillespie first heard the young pianist at the bar in the Hotel Nacional in Havana and was so impressed that he invited him to join his big band the next day at the 1985 Jazz Plaza Festival. The bebop legend also proposed that they play a duet together, and when he asked Rubalcaba what he wanted to play, he immediately answered “Con Alma.” Although Gillespie tried mightily to bring him to the U.S. to play with his band, politics prevailed and Rubalcaba’s visa request was denied. A sad coda: The pianist, who was then living in the Dominican Republic, was granted permission to come to New York for Gillespie’s memorial service in 1993. All that history and feeling can be heard in Rubalcaba’s solo rendition of one of his cherished champion’s best-loved compositions.
When Wynton Marsalis has a question about a particular Latin rhythm or idiom, he turns to a trusted source: Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra bassist and composer Carlos Henriquez. A Nuyorican who grew up in the Bronx, Henriquez learned firshand about the music from his mentor, Andy González, among others. He also gleaned quite a bit from time spent with maestros such as Tito Puente and Eddie Palmieri, on bandstands and at informal hangs and rehearsals. The Mott Haven neighborhood in which the bassist grew up is vital to his aesthetic, and he celebrates it on two releases under his name, including this year’s The South Bronx Story (Tiger Turn). Originally commissioned by Jazz at Lincoln Center, the 10-song program for nonet paints a vibrant portrait of a world and a way of life in which cultures and generations combined and clashed and left a definite impression on Henriquez. On tracks such as “Boro of Fire,” “Moses on the Cross” and “Black (Benji),” he offers musical reportage of the events and the characters that shaped his life, while tunes such as “Fort Apache” and “Hip Hop con Clave” salute the González brothers’ seminal band and the development of a new genre that was born slightly before he was, respectively. The laid-back yet lively “Hydrants Love All,” included here, conjures the image of summer days in which kids beat the city swelter by splashing in the rushing stream of fire hydrants opened (often illegally) for the occasion. A horn chorus and a vocal chorus further evoke the era (1970s-’80s), as does the calming presence of Fender Rhodes and a battery of congas.
From singer and composer to film actor and government official in his native Panama, Rubén Blades has worn many hats. So it’s unsurprising that the vocalist and composer would crave variety in his musical offerings, as well. On his recent release, SALSWING! (Rubén Blades Productions), Blades teams up with Roberto Delgado’s Orquesta for a program that marries the salsa that he performed from his early days with the bands of Pete Rodriguez and Ray Barretto to classic big band swing. The album, part of a trilogy released in April along with Salsa Plus! and Swing!, features Spanish-language numbers by Blades, as well as a couple of standards from the Great American Songbook. Among the latter, Blades and the 14-piece orchestra offer an exuberant read of the Depression-era favorite “Pennies From Heaven,” a reassuring message for modern times, too. A sparkling arrangement by bassist and bandleader Delgado hews close to the golden age of swing — think Basie or Benny — with superb horn features and a bright trombone solo by Xito Lovell. Blades and the Delgado band share a long history, and the singer, whose optimism and good cheer are infectious, is perfectly matched by this first-class ensemble. The Latin Grammys thought so, too, naming SALSWING! Album of the Year (and Salsa Plus! as Best Salsa Album).
Nearly a decade has passed between the debut release from Alí Bello & the Sweet Wire Band and their follow-up recording. But the new album, Inheritance (Tiger Turn), was worth the wait. Bello, a Venezuelan-born violin virtuoso, once again assembles his like-minded countrymen bandmates, who supply a variety of rhythms and textures that incorporate traditional, urban, Afro-Caribbean, jazz and fusion flavors. Based in New York, Bello has played behind the diverse likes of Johnny Pacheco and Paquito D’Rivera, as well as Beyoncé and The Roots, and recruited jazz notables Regina Carter, Jeff Lederer and Jaleel Shaw to perform on Inheritance. Shaw lends his sweet-toned soprano saxophone to “Heartbeat,” our selection, which begins with Gabriel Vivas’ bass notes providing the vital pulse of the song. The musicians maintain an upbeat, optimistic feel throughout, with Vivas’ gentle bounce, Gabriel Chakarji’s twinkling Fender Rhodes and Ismael Baiz’s slinky drums providing a foundation for Bello’s poignant bowing, which dips into jazz, folk and classical idioms. An abbreviated version of the song accompanies a Youtube video showing Bello and the band in their New York environs, adding another dimension to the song as it grooves to the city’s energy but is hardly subsumed by it.
During the past couple of years of COVID lockdown, Edward Simon has become increasingly comfortable with the solo-piano format. In fact, he spent his 50th birthday in 2019 performing solo at Oakland’s Piedmont Piano Company in front of an intimate audience gathered in the store’s showroom. That concert was captured on Solo Live (Ridgeway), the native Venezuelan pianist’s first-ever solo recording and just his second live release. Over the course of five well-developed tracks — with no edits — Simon reveals his debt to touchstones such as Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett as he delves into a couple of tunes by Thelonious Monk, a couple of Great American Songbook standards and an original composition he recorded with his Steel House trio (with Scott Colley and Brian Blade). The program kicks off with a read of the Billy Strayhorn reverie “Lush Life,” included here. Beginning on an appropriately wistful note, then picking up a stride-like bounce as the epic tale of dissolution unfolds, the song conjures the heady nightlife whirl before the inevitable feelings of regret reappear with a sobering return to reality. An ensemble player who’s performed with the bands of Bobby Watson, Greg Osby and Terence Blanchard, and led groups under his own name on stage and on 14 previous recordings, Simon called the solo-piano concert chronicled here a “leap of faith.” Now, with increased confidence in his unaccompanied performance, he anticipates more such dates, on stage and in the studio.
The bomba and plena styles are foundational to Puerto Rican music, hailing from African and French Caribbean roots, respectively. While the rhythmically complex bomba music arrived on the island with the slave trade in the 17th century, plena simplified those rhythms in the early 20th century and was often the music of protest and the working class. It is the latter style that provides the title for and the rhythmic momentum behind the Michael Eckroth Group’s recent release Plena (Truth Revolution). Hailing from Phoenix, Arizona, pianist and composer Eckroth established himself on the New York City jazz scene and earned a Grammy nomination for his 2018 recording with his mambo-oriented Orquesta Akokán. His first full-length recording under his own name since 2015, Plena stays true to its Latin roots, but is hardly limited by them. The caffeinated opener, “And So It Goes,” combines the rhythmic excitement of Latin jazz with hard-bop earthiness, sounding like a cut from a classic Blue Note album of the 1960s. Drummer Joel Mateo and percussionist Mauricio Herrera drive the action with unrelenting verve, underlined by Alex “Apolo” Ayala’s quick-fingered bass lines. Eckroth and saxophonist Peter Brainin both offer edgy, anxious solos that quicken listeners’ heart rates like a jolt of espresso. And no doubt Eckroth will find plenty of cafecito windows in Miami, as he recently joined the faculty at Florida International University.
A recording of a duo performance that was later livestreamed, El Arte del Bolero (Miel Music) is endemic of the pandemic era. Keeping the bandstand spare, saxophonist Miguel Zenón and pianist Luis Perdomo teamed up on a set of boleros, or ballads, that they performed at The Jazz Gallery in New York City in September 2020 and made available to audiences through streaming video in November of that year. Those performances then became a six-song album, which was released earlier this year. The music was more than familiar to both Zenón and Perdomo, who grew up listening to these songs, recordings of which were frequently played at home by their parents and grandparents. Repertoire encompasses boleros made popular by legendary Latin musicians including Benny Moré and Bobby Capó, and is expressed with a depth of emotion and instrumental virtuosity that defies mere nostalgia. The duo’s read of “Ese Hastío,” included here, is based on a 1979 version recorded by Ray Barretto (as “Piensa en Mi”), from a record for which both Zenón and Perdomo have great affection. Perdomo opens the song with a deft and dolorous solo intro before Zenón’s tear-stained alto enters, his phrasing and intonation inspired by the vocalists on the albums on which he was raised.
Known primarily as a bop-inspired player, pianist and composer Grant Richards has a long-held passion for Latin jazz. Recordings by Eddie Palmieri and Danilo Perez were particularly influential to his development, and the Portland, Oregon, native and Berklee College of Music standout began writing tunes in the idiom several years ago. Those compositions comprise the bulk of Richards’ recent album Ballyhoo (self-released), on which he’s joined by longtime trio mates Damian Erskine and Richard Melz, on bass and drums, respectively, as well as percussionist Carmelo Torres. Starting with a midtempo rhythm, the lively title track morphs into a lively cooker as it unfolds, with Richards’ piano dipping into blues and boogaloo territory; it then takes another twist, as Erskine’s electric bass comes to the fore. And if the track reminds listeners of Danilo Perez’s pianistic forays, that’s no accident; Richards admits that the Panamanian musician, with whom he studied at Berklee, is a primary influence here, particularly in his use of an “asymmetrical clave” rhythm and a specific type of mute placed on the piano strings. The rhythm team displays a seamless synergy throughout, and it’s no surprise to learn that percussionist Torres and drummer Melz grew up playing together, nor that the versatile Erskine, who’s played with the diverse likes of the Jaco Pastorius Big Band and the saxophonist Skerik, is among Richards’ favorite bassists.
While he’s played on critically acclaimed albums by artists such as Brian Lynch and Dafnis Prieto, until now, pianist and composer Alex Brown had but one album under his own name, 2010’s simply titled Pianist. His long-awaited follow-up, The Dark Fire Sessions (self-released), takes its title from the studio and rehearsal space Brown and his bassist brother Zach Brown opened in Harlem. With a bachelor’s degree from New England Conservatory and a master’s from University of Miami’s Frost School of Music, Brown has racked up some impressive credits, working with the likes of Paquito D’Rivera (for more than a decade), Warren Wolf and Christian McBride. Utilizing a variety of Latin folk rhythms, Brown’s compositions on The Dark Fire Sessions are rooted in tradition — he even incorporates a field recording of musicians from the jungles of the Virgin Islands — but also quite forward-looking. Electronic textures and hip-hop rhythms add a modern overlay to the complex tumba-inspired grooves of “Anthem,” as Brown, brother Zach and drummer Eric Doob divide and subdivide the 6/8 groove that originated on the island of Curaçao. Heated electric guitar and chiming Fender Rhodes converse eloquently, their interaction joined by a thrilling battery of hand drums as the epic tune winds to its conclusion.
The cosmos, and its possible influence on human endeavors, has served as raw material for jazz artists over the years, most notably in Mary Lou Williams’ Zodiac Suite. Also intrigued by the stars, Israeli-born flutist and composer Itai Kriss themed his recent self-released recording, Supermoon, around the 12 signs of the Zodiac, with each track written to reflect the characteristics associated with a particular sign. For such a heavens-gazing subject, the music is often surprisingly earthly, rooted in Latin and funk rhythms. This will come as no surprise to those who know Kriss, a 20-year veteran of the New York City jazz scene who’s worked with Afro-Cuban artists such as Orquesta Akokán, Dafnis Prieto and Pedrito Martinez, and who’s performed at clubs such as The Blue Note, Birdland and S.O.B.’s. Kriss’ singular blend of Caribbean and Middle Eastern sensibilities are a signature of his original music and reflected in his multicultural Telavana ensemble, which includes musicians from Puerto Rico, Cuba and Israel. “Taurus,” our selection, begins with a bullish, low-toned piano introduction from César Orozco, before bassist Tamir Shmerling, drummer Dan Aran and percussionist Marcos López join in on a joyous Latin breakdown. Vocalist Keisel Jimenez’s shouted exhortations up the party ante before Kriss blows in on the heated timba beat, setting the stage for a back-and-forth between Jimenez and a vocal chorus. Trumpeter Wayne Tucker hits some stratospheric high notes and Kriss, occasionally cooling the sonic palette, plays with great ardor throughout.
As leader and sideman, drummer-composer Ches Smith is a creative force in the modern-jazz world. Having worked alongside innovators such as John Zorn, Tim Berne and Mary Halvorson, and helmed sessions with his group These Arches and his trio (with Craig Taborn and Mat Maneri) on his ECM release The Bell, Smith established himself as an elite player among adventurous artists. His 2021 release Path of Seven Colors (Pyroclastic), while delving into traditions dating back hundreds of years, is no less venturesome. The drummer had become fascinated with vodou music when called to accompany a Haitian dance class more than 20 years ago. His decades-long studies culminated in the 2017 album titled We All Break, also the name of the ensemble, which featured three drummers and piano. Smith expanded the group to an octet on Path of Seven Colors, which ensconces a jazz quartet into the mix and truly allows for a potent admixture of jazz and vodou. Once again, Smith recruited his teachers, Haitian drummers Daniel Brevil and Markus Schwartz, and pianist Matt Mitchell, and added drummer Jean-Guy “Fanfan” Rene, vocalist Sirene Dantor Rene, saxophonist Miguel Zenón and bassist Nick Dunston. The results are mesmerizing, featuring the dramatic interplay of drums and vocals and jazz instrumentation as the ensemble explores intricate polyrhythms and improvises over the traditional rhythms at the core of each piece. “Women of Iron,” included here, is a sterling example of this unique synthesis, building on a hypnotic drone of piano and percussion. Zenón’s alto sax dances frenetically atop the fiery rhythms before Mitchell picks up the baton, maintaining the intense energy in conversation with the irrepressible drums.