The Latin influence has always been an occasional element in jazz. W.C. Handy used a tango-like rhythm in his "Memphis Blues" in 1912 and again in the verse part of "St. Louis Blues" two years later. Jelly Roll Morton talked about (and used on records in the 1920s) what he called the Spanish tinge. In 1930 Louis Armstrong recorded a rumba, "The Peanut Vendor." Juan Tizol, the trombonist from Puerto Rico, brought his ethnic heritage to the early Duke Ellington orchestra in the 1930s with "Caravan," "Moonlight Fiesta," "Conga Brava" and many other works.
Today, the Latin jazz world is subdivided into many genres: Afro-Cuban, Brazilian bossa nova, Argentine, salsa; so pervasive has it become during the past decade that Concord Jazz Records started a Latin subsidiary, Concord Picante, and another label, Crossover, to make room for these idioms.
Many of the best Picante items have just been transferred to CDs. Among those recommended are "Ivory and Steel" by the Monty Alexander Quintet, featuring Othello Molineaux on steel drum (CCD 4124), "Brazilville" by the Charlie Byrd Trio with Bud Shank (CCD 4173), Bien Sabroso!" by Poncho Sanchez (CCD 4239), and "Piquant" by Tania Maria CCD 4151).
Among the best of the newly recorded Latin releases are the first two CDs reviewed below.
"MISTER E." Pete Escovedo. Crossover CCD 45-005. The paterfamilias has his children along for this rhythmic ride. Helping him out in the percussion department are sons Juan Escovedo and Peter Michael Escovedo, with daughter Shela E. heard briefly on congas and vocal in one cut. For the most part, it's a brilliantly recorded program with a formidable percussion team, along with bold brass writing by, among others, the trombonist/musical director Wayne Wallace. The brisk rhythms are relieved by such works as a relaxed "Let's Wait a While" and the misterioso title tune. Among the best jazz soloists are Melecio Magdaluyo on saxes and flute, David Yamasaki on guitar and Rebeca Mauleon on keyboards. 4 1/2 stars.
"TANGO/ZERO HOUR." Astor Piazzola. Pangea PAND 3213 B. Forget the cutesy, corny, X-rated liner notes, which tell you nothing about Piazzola. Born in 1921 in Buenos Aires, he became the seminal figure during the 1950s in the modernization of the tango. This Argentine music has an infectious indigenous flavor, the product of his use of the bandoneon (a multi-buttoned cousin of the accordion). The quintet is drumless, relying for its personality on the leader, his ingratiating compositions, his graceful violinist (Fernando Suarez) and a non-aggressive rhythm section. This is dramatic, exciting, sensual music. 4 1/2 stars.
"COLLABORATION." Helen Merrill-Gil Evans. EmArcy 834-205-2. Don't be confused. This is not the same album Merrill recorded in 1956 with Evans arranging and conducting. However, the same tunes are used, with one exception (a superb new "Summertime" replaces "You're Lucky to Me"); even the arrangements are generally similar, yet the sound quality is so superior, and Merrill's voice has matured so impressively, that the results are a magnificent final return (this was Evans' penultimate recording) of an incomparable team. The writing (variously using woodwinds, brass or strings) reminds us that Evans was always at his zenith writing for a specific vocalist or instrumentalist. This album preceded by a year or two his collaborations with Miles Davis and a large orchestra.
The songs for the most part are tailored to Merrill's veiled timbre and downbeat personality ("I'm a Fool to Want You," "Troubled Waters," "He Was Too Good to Me"), but there are moments of upbeat contrast. Ironically, Merrill is quoted as saying that "Earphones and having to think about technical problems is absolute death," yet she is shown at the session wearing earphones. The result was absolute magic. 5 stars.
"BUD & BIRD." Gil Evans. ProJazz CDJ 671. Evans' last LP, taped at a New York jazz club three months before his death in March, shows how he adapted to the electronic generation. He came equipped with two synth players and set up the performances often as long strings of solos surrounded (and sometimes supported) by horn section passages. As many as 10 soloists are accommodated (curiously, Evans and his son Miles, who plays trumpet, are not featured); they vary from inspired (Shunzo Ono and Johnny Coles on trumpets, Dave Bargeron on trombone) to hysterical. (One wonders whether the hysterical alto player is the same fellow responsible for occasionally dubious intonation in the sax section.) 3 stars.