With apologies to Simon and Garfunkel, someone told Dave Samuels it was all happening at the zoo - and the impromptu result was the Caribbean Jazz Project, now a decade long, Grammy Award winning phenomenon that has become one of contemporary jazz’s most compelling live attractions. Fresh from nearly two decades with Spyro Gyra, the vibes and marimba master got a call in 1993 from a promoter doing a jazz series at New York’s Central Park Zoo. His simple request: to put together “something interesting” for a September concert.
Although the personnel has evolved over the years, fans listening to the new two CD set Here and Now – Live in Concert — a two hour plus date recorded in March 2004 at the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild Concert Hall in Pittsburgh - will no doubt feel as gleefully seduced by the same type of spontaneity and infectious percussive energy that launched the franchise over 11 years ago.
“For the first gig in 1993 my thought was to call Andy Narell, who I had played with previously, and Paquito D’Rivera, who I had always wanted to play with,” says Samuels from a tour stop in Houston with one of his other gigs, the vibe/marimba duo ‘Double Image’. “When we started rehearsing, we realized that we had discovered a unique and unexpected chemistry, sonically and personally. No one had ever heard vibes, steel pans and sax together with a Latin rhythm section before. We played a gig in Kentucky a few months later, and were soon seeking out a booking agent.”
The idea of a Caribbean Jazz Project recording was an easy sell to Heads Up founder Dave Love, whose label released the unit’s first two projects, a self-titled 1995 debut and 1997’s Island Stories. Soon the trio—backed by a rhythm section featuring the group’s current rhythm section - Argentinian pianist, Dario Eskenazi, Peruvian bassist, Oscar Stagnaro and drummer, Mark Walker — was performing upwards of 100 shows a year, delighting audiences with a wide-reaching Latin jazz mix that extended far beyond the typical Afro-Cuban and Nuyorican styles that were popular at the time. Narell brought his Trinidadian and Martinique pan sensibilities, D’Rivera mixed in his Brazilian influences and Samuels brought jazz to the party. The idea was to explore the roots of Latin music via the melding of musical cultures from Europe, the Caribbean and West Africa as a result of the slave trade.
CJP might have disbanded in the late 90s when D’Rivera and Narell left and Samuels did his tribute project Tjaderized for Verve in 2000, but instead it found a new lease on life with two new all-star members (guitarist, Steve Khan and flutist, Dave Valentin) and a deal with Concord. For the next 2 studio recordings, the CJP was “the only Latin jazz band without a pianist.” Their subsequent discs with piano and no guitar — The Gathering and Birds of a Feather - earned Grammy nominations for Best Latin Jazz Recording; The Gathering won in 2003. The latest lineup chronicled on Here and Now features the original CJP rhythm section Dario Eskenasi on piano, bassist Oscar Stagnaro and drummer Mark Walker along with Argentinian Diego Urcola blowing heavy trumpet and flugelhorn and Venezulean percussionist Roberto Quintero.
“I didn’t know what to expect with all the personnel changes, but they turned out to be an incredible gift that reinvigorated the whole process of touring and recording,” says Samuels. “We’re bringing new music and influences to the fold and expanding our scope all the time. We’re always shifting. Are we Latin Jazz, or Jazz Latin? The recipe keeps changing, according to the tune or player we spotlight. On the live album, in addition to some originals, we take standards and redecorate them. ‘Stolen Moments’, ‘Naima’ and ‘Caravan’ all have shifting rhythmic feels and time signatures. We like to call ‘Night In Tunisia,’ ‘Nightmare in Tunisia’ because it starts out as a free improvisation piece. When we perform, our trademark is flexilibity.”
Of course, releasing a live CD means that one performance — and thus one evening of whimsical rhythm patterns and improvisations - is captured for posterity above any other. Which suits Samuels just fine. “It was time to do a live album and make a definitive statement about what Caribbean Jazz Project is now. We wanted to capture the intensity and flexibility of the music we make . Studio recordings have time limitations and a certain sheen to them, while Here and Now gives us an opportunity to strip down to the bare wood. Rather than a snapshot, it’s like a motion picture.”
Creating a joint venture with Native Language Music founder Joe Sherbanee, veteran guitarist Juan Carlos Quintero originated his indie label Moondo Records as a vehicle for licensing his last three solo projects Los Musicos (2002), Medillin (2003) and Los Primos (2004). 2005 marks Moondo’s first year as a full-fledged world music label, distributed by Navarre. The exciting slate of initial releases display the inspiring, wide-ranging musical wanderlust that drives Quintero: From Mykonas to Madrid, a mix of Greek and Mediterranean acoustic guitar music from brothers Dimitrius and Thano Sahnas of the smooth jazz band Turning Point; a reissue of Brazilian singer Kleber Jorge’s Trovador, including a bonus track; and Guitarras De Pasion, a compilation of Spanish nylon guitar pieces from throughout Quintero’s career. In late 2004, six weeks prior to its official release, Quintero’s disc was released to iTunes, where it quickly went #1 on the world and general pop charts in numerous European countries.
Forthcoming Moondo artists include Venezuelan singer Thania Sanz, Brazilian band Katia Moraes & Samba Guru (featured last year at the Playboy Jazz Festival), Mexican folkloric group Son de Madera, and East L.A.’s world music rockers Quetval.
Extreme world music fans should pay special attention to two other can’t miss releases, Luis Munoz’s multi ethnic Latin romp Vida and Maria de Barros’ polyrhythmic West African romp Danca Ma Mi (Dance With Me).
Inspired by a spiritual journey in the wake of his wife’s open heart surgery and his brother’s death, Luis Munoz — a brilliant composer, producer, keyboardist and percussionist — explores everything from brassy, bop oriented Afro/Latin jazz to bossa, meringue, joropo and acoustic folkloric music. Drawing from one of the song titles, Vida it’s a gloriously “mad bop” around the soul of Latin America.
Although Narada, Maria de Barros’ label, calls her a “Cabo Verdean chanteuse” based on the country of her ancestry and creative focus, the singer is actually a native of nearby Senegal. Situated at the crossroads of three continents, the Cabo Verdean islands are a well known melting pot of African, Argentinean, Portuguese and Cuban music; its greatest ambassador is Caesaria Evora, the five time Grammy winning “barefoot diva” who is de Barros’ godmother and chief inspiration. But while Evora is known for her mornos, de Barros — who bears a favorable, gently raspy vocal resemblance to Gloria Estefan — is being hailed as Queen of the Coladeiras, a salsa flavored dance music. Danca Ma Mi is a lively and sensuous, multi-faceted romantic party disc, highlighted by de Barros’ colorful interaction with adult and children’s choirs and rich percussion textures.
Musically, she traverses the many emotional facets of her culture, from coladeiras and mornas to meringue like funana rhythms. Since she’s singing in her native language, English speaking listeners will enjoy the challenge of feeling de Barros’ rich joys and sorrows without the benefit of translated lyrics.
What I’m Listening To:
1) Nicolas Bearde, All About Love (Right Groove Records) – The cover of the soulful vocalist’s disc finds him offering a few dozen roses, and his easy way with a mix of covers and originals delivers big time on the promise of romance, with a few touches of edgier blues for good measure.
2) Beyond The Sea, Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (Atco/Rhino)
3) Bobby Caldwell, Perfect Island Nights (Music Force Media Group)
4) The Chris Walden Big Band, Home of My Heart (Origin)
5) Tim Bowman, This Is What I Hear (Liquid Records Entertainment)