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By Mark Holston
After a contemplative prelude crafted by Arturo O’Farrill’s solo piano, this nostalgia-drenched release roars off at a torrid pace, updating some hallowed Cuban repertoire while offering some zesty contemporary creations in the Afro-Cuban mode. The date features O’Farrill’s Brooklyn-based Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra and Cuba’s Santiago Big Band, fronted by pianist and arranger Marcos Fernández. A revolving bandstand affair — the two groups alternate performances on the session’s dozen tracks — Santiago Brooklyn Santiago reveals contrasting approaches to the genre while showcasing the talents of an impressive array of soloists who guest in each other’s bands.
Both ensembles boast the instrumentation that’s been around since the emergence of the up-tempo mambo style in the mid-1940s. The brassy, rhythmically intense and jazz-savvy characteristics pioneered by band leaders such as Machito, Tito Puente and Dámaso Pérez Prado remain a potent touchstone. Fernández and his band are particularly adept at modernizing traditional Cuban fare that extends back almost a century. “Ay, Mamá Inés!,” a revered melody born in 1927, is refashioned via a jagged, rock-influenced timba pulse and dueling horn sections. “Bilongo,” a catchy tune that has remained popular through the decades, was first recorded in 1941 by Spanish bandleader Xavier Cugat and again in 1968 by salsa icon Eddie Palmieri.
For its part, O’Farrill’s orchestra focuses more on recently penned compositions. The one notable exception is “Asia Minor,” a classic from Machito’s book recorded in 1950. This take features bassist Bam Rodriguez, trumpeter Bryan Davis and baritone saxophonist Larry Bustamante in extended solos. “Cha,” composed and arranged by trumpeter Steven Bernstein, is nudged along by a sultry cha-cha-chá tempo, providing the perfect backdrop for solos by clarinetist Jasper Dütz.
Santiago Brooklyn Santiago is a joyful documentation of stylistic hallmarks that continue to make the Latin big band such a potent force in jazz, from the fire-breathing horn sections to the frothy undercurrent of traditional Afro-Caribbean rhythms.