I should just put this out on the table here at the very start: I am not a huge fan of Latin jazz, per se, and I'm only starting this discography page up because my interest in other, more traditionally oriented, Latin-American music has inevitably led me to the places where the two styles intersect. It's territory I've sniffed around before: I've tried to get into this stuff many times before, and generally find the music as a genre to be pretty much a big turnoff. Yeah, I know that many of the Latin American artists I do like -- Tito Puente, for example -- can safely be called "jazz" players, and that latin dance music (ie, salsa and son) has deep and indivisible interconnections with the jazz scene. But... still... most of the stuff I've heard presented as "latin jazz" seems to be overly slick, repetitious, and commercialized, and dilutes what is best about both genres. In specific, it takes the passion and power of son music and makes it routine -- indeed, boring. None of these comments are particularly new, or original, or even a definitive statement as far as even I am concerned. I do find Latin-flavored "jazz" records that I like from time to time, and I figured I might as well start keeping track of the records I have heard... I'm only going to be hearing more and more as time goes by, I'm sure.
By the way, feedback and criticism is always welcome... If you think you've got a sense of my likes and dislikes and could steer me to albums, classics or otherwise, that you think I could benefit from, feel free to write me and toss a few suggestions my way.
Francisco Aguabella "Ochimini" (Cubop/Ubiquity, 2004)
Master percussionist Aguabella leads this somewhat driving Latin jazz set... The musicianship is high calibre, but the style is a little too grating and jazz-oriented for my tastes.
Victor Feldman "Latinsville!" (Contemporary/Fantasy, 1959)
British-born vibrophonist Victor Feldman had a swinging beat and a nice, playful approach to the whole "Latin jazz" equation. He also had a lot of firepower on hand: Mongo Santamaria, Willie Bobo and Vince Guaraldi are a few of the luminaries he jams with here. Some of these songs are really enjoyable, in a perky, loungey kinda way, what many jazz fans might call "lightweight," but I find kinda fun. I think the vibrophone itself just has natural qualities that help it undercut the stuffiness and tedium of jazz in general, and in this case, Latin jazz in particular: it's a goofy, hypermelodic instrument, with rounded tones that are difficult to rough up. You can play vibes fast, but it's difficult to play them "hard." Eventually this album lapses into well-trod jazz formulae -- a chopsy, toot-tootling sax solo or two that outstay their welcome, a how-fast-can-you-play dragrace towards the end; standard stuff. But the bouncier material is pretty enjoyable.
Roberto Fonseca "United We Swing" (Enja/Justin Time, 2007)
Innovative, introspective and remarkably elastic Latin jazz from Cuban pianist Roberto Fonseca, a recent addition to the extended Buena Vista Social Club clan... Influenced by fusion artists such as Herbie Hancock and Keith Jarrett, Fonseca also has a deep affinity for old-school Cuban son, and mixes the two in a way that is fairly unique. Instead of teetering back and forth between dense, showy jazz riffs and explosive bursts of salsa (as is typical of the genre), Fonseca really weaves the various strands together in a sinuous, expressive way... I'm not normally a big mainstream or Latin jazz fan, but I found this album to be consistently engaging and persuasive, as well as quite diverse. Some cool guest performers as well -- Brazilian percussionist Carlinhos Brownjoins in on a version of Abdullah Ibrahim's "Ishmael," while Buena Vista cohort Cachaito Lopez plays bass on several tracks, and Omara Portuondo sings on a stripped-down duet, "Mil Congojas." If you're looking for new Latin jazz with heft and soul, check this album out.
Machito and Graciela -- Latin Jazz Mambo Masters
Maria Marquez "Princesa De La Naturaleza" (Adventure Music, 2004)
I've long found the much-vaunted Brazilian diva Virginia Rodrigues' contralto vocals to be a bit unpleasant and her musical approach to be dull; but I've also wondered if it was just her voice that bugged me, or if I might like her better in a less stuffy surrounding. Well, here's the answer. Venezuelan jazz singer Maria Marquez has a remarkable vocal similarity to Rodrigues, but her arrangements are infinitely more varied and adventuresome, and her music is much more interesting. Although ultimately this album was too noodly and "jazzy" for me, it was still pretty engaging, and I would recommend it to folks who appreciate similar efforts by Marlui Miranda or Nana Vasconcelos and Egberto Gismonti. She's aided here by the cream of Northern California's younger generation of Latin Jazz musicians, notably John Santos and Omar Sosa... A strong effort with some nice, lyrical passages.
Chico O'Farrill "Cuban Blues: The Chico O'Farrill Sessions" (PolyGram, 1996)
A key figure in the growth of "Latin Jazz" as we know it, composer/arranger Chico O'Farrill more or less formalized the stylistic innovations of fiery performers such as Machito and Cachao... This 2-CD set collects several of O'Farrill's hard-to-find early albums, sessions from 1951 that helped solidify the new style, merging the swaying rhythms of Cuba with the flashy, hard-edged, chops-oriented aggressive virtuosity of the bebop crowd. In some respects, these arrangements are a little too clear-cut and formal, lacking some of the playful exhiliaration of the original Cuban sones... Still, it's pretty cool stuff, and infinitely more interesting than the more saccharine, by-the-numbers style adopted later on when Latin Jazz became an institutionalized (and more marketable) subgenre... O'Farrill's bands were rigorously integrated, evenly split between North American jazzmen and their Latin American counterparts, and incorporated the best elements of both styles. Afro-Cuban legend Mario Bauza helps anchor the band on almost all these tracks; Machito and pianist Rene Hernandez are among the other heavyweights on the latino side of the equation, as well as singer Bobby Escoto, whose gutsy vocals light up several songs on Disc One. Like many Latin Jazz outings, this is all a little too same-y to hold my attention, too blaring and solo-oriented, but still pretty powerful stuff. One of the definitive historical collections of this style of music, and highly recommended for anyone trying to get into the style.
Eddie Palmieri "Vamonos Pa'l Monte" (Tico, 1971)
A strong album that gets into some deep, spacy grooves, clearly influenced by earlier waves of acid rock and psychedelic music. The Latin vibe predominates, though, and this is a solid salsa effort. Ismael Quintana sings on several tracks; Alfredo Armenteros kicks in on trombone, and brother Charlie Palmieri sits in on the organ. Cool stuff!
Eddie Palmieri "La Perfecta II" (Concord, 2002)
This disc starts off with several good, old-fashioned salsa sizzlers, and gradually works its way into jazzier terrain. Even on the Latin Jazz tracks, Palmieri keeps a certain muscular aggressiveness to his work, super-swinging and melodically rich -- all in all, pretty nice stuff!
Eddie Palmieri "Ritmo Caliente" (Concord, 2003)
Another surprisingly strong album... This disc starts off with a bang, with swift salsa tunes like "La Voz Del Caribe" and "Grandpa Semi-Tone Blues" showing that Palmieri's still got the fire in the belly, and a band that can match his passion. He moves steadily into a jazzier, smoother mode, but it's all top-flight material. Even after all these decades into his career, Palmieri still seems like a force of nature: nothing can slow him down or make a dent in his soulfulness and love of the music. If you're a fan of modern Latin Jazz or salsa, then this is an album you'll appreciate.
Chano Pozo "The Life And Music Of The Legendary Cuban Conga Drummer" (Tumbao, 2001)
This lavish 3-CD set covers the career of Chano Pozo, the live fast-die young percussionist who is frequently cited by jazz historians as the focal point in the birth of latin jazz. Pozo joined Dizzy Gillespie's seminal bebop orchestra late in 1947, quickly becoming a featured soloist and helping Gillespie break "latin jazz" into the North American mainstream. Pozo was only with the band for about a year: in December, 1948 he was shot to death in a brawl in New York City. This box set collects the bulk of Pozo's recordings and has a big book that includes interviews with Mario Bauza, Dizzy Gillespie, Machito and others who were around to see Pozo in his fiery prime.
Chano Pozo "The Real Birth Of Cubop" (Tumbao, 2001)
For a more modest look at Pozo's career, there's this excellent set of live recordings made with the Dizzy Gillespie orquestra in 1948, just before Pozo's untimely death in NYC. There's plenty of charming spontenaiety, including homages to the goofy showboating of Cab Calloway, some lighthearted improvisations and some really impressive aural effects, underscoring the tremendous power of Gillespie's band. A cool look at the lighter, less pretentious side of bebop jazz.
Tito Puente -- El Rey de las Timbales
Gonzalo Rubalcaba "Paseo" (Blue Note, 2004)
Latin-jazz bandleader Rubalcaba, guiding on piano and percussion, dips deeper into the "Latin" side of his art, with tracks like the opening number, "El Guerrillero" and "Paseo Con Fula," which delve into the older styles which led to the modern-day Afro-Cuban son and salsa we know and love today. Overall, this is too jazz oriented for me, but Latin-jazz fans will find these explorations of the tradition's roots refreshing and true... The playing is certainly vigorous and earnest... I'm just not that much of a jazz fan to savor it...
Poncho Sanchez "Out Of Sight!" (Concord, 2003)
This Latin-Jazz old-timer cuts loose with a tight, funky, soul-drenched set of good old-fashioned rhythm & boogaloo... Sanchez style! On the opening track, a muscular version of "One Mint Julep," you may find yourself thinking, "Man -- that guy sounds just like Ray Charles!" Well, surprise -- it is! Brother Ray kicks in on a couple of tunes, and is joined on the disc by several other high-power guest artists, including Fred Wesley of the JB Horns, Billy Preston, jazzman Pee Wee Ellis, and Afro-Cuban master percussionist Francisco Aguabella, who bangs a mean bata drum on "El Tambor Del Mongo." It's a lively, earthy set that avoids, for the most part the pitfalls of the jazzier side of the Latin/Jazz equation. If you're a fan, this disc will knock your socks off!
Chucho Valdes "Bele Bele En La Habana" (Blue Note, 1998)
Pianist Jesus "Chucho" Valdes, leader of the Cuban band Grupo Irakere, in a forceful set that's a little too jazzy for me. The appeal here is that this is Valdes in a small group format, leading a four-piece combo that includes three young up-and-comers from Cuba's contemproary Afro-Cuban jazz scene. It's not my cup of tea, but it's a pretty solid set, if you like the style. The booklet includes very informative liner notes that give a succinct history of Irakere and Valdes's long career.
Papo Vazquez Pirates Troubadours "Carnival In San Juan" (Cubop, 2003)
Leans pretty heavily towards the jazzier end of the equation, with extended trombone and horn work, solos galore, and less emphasis on ensemble playing in the classic "latin" tradition. Not my cup of tea, but certainly a strong, capable ensemble with serious chops and plenty of bounce in their walk. If you like the style, this is a fine disc.
Various Artists "PACHUCO BOOGIE: THE ORIGINAL HISTORICAL RECORDINGS" (Arhoolie, 2002)
A great set of swinging, jazz-tinged California Chicano R&B from the height of the postwar "pachuco" scene. Most folks know this as a the music of the "zoot suiters" -- the latino hipsters who pioneered Mexican-American popular culture during the late '40s, and whose outlandish inhibitions met with a white backlash that became known as the "zoot suit riots." It's all fun and games as far as the music was concerned, though -- and this disc is a delight from start to finish. It all began in 1948 with the title track, "Pachuco Boogie," which was recorded as a goof by Don Tosti, a veteran big band bassist whose roots were in the barrio. The song features a super-catchy riff and a slang-filled rap in the barrio lingo known as calo, a forerunner of contemporary Spanglish. The song was runaway hit in the Southwest, touching off a fad that lasted a couple of years. This collection has some of the best, and rarest, of the pachuco jazz singles. Although the most famous track, Lalo Guererro's crosscultural stoner classic, "Marijuana Boogie," a couple of other Guererro tracks do make the grade, along with a ton of Don Tosti's follow-up singles. This disc is a real find -- chaotic and fun, great music saved from oscurity and lovingly curated by our pals at Arhoolie.
Various Artists "PUTUMAYO PRESENTS LATIN JAZZ" (Putumayo, 2007)
A swinging set of Latin jazz classics, featuring tracks by heavyweights such as Chocolate Armenteros, Ray Baretto, Machito, Manny Oquendo, Tito Puente, Hilton Ruiz and Tito Puente... It's a pretty solid collection and, interestingly enough, it concentrates on the slinkier, more groove-oriented "Latin" side of the equation, lingering on the hypnotic phrasing of salsa/son, rather than the big bandish blare of the "Jazz" camp. That's just fine by me -- other than the album's closer, a long track by Eddie Palmieri and Brian Lynch, nothing on here is "too jazz" for me, so it mostly sounds like a cool son set. Definitely worth checking out.
Various Artists "VIVA CUBOP 2: DANCE THE AFRO CUBAN WAY" (CuBop/Ubiquity, 2000)
Offhand, I can't say as I've ever been a huge fan of latin jazz, per se, but this is a pretty swinging sampler of the best artists in the Ubiquity stable. This collection ranges from straight up jazz guys like Jack Constanzo (whose thunderous "La La La" opens the album...) and Dave Pike, to folks closer to the salsa side of things, like Arturo Sandoval and Bobby Matos, as well as electronic/DJ types who also want in on the action, such as Snowboy, who contributes "Oya Ye Ye" from his new album. Pretty cool disc, really!
Latin Music Index
World Music Index