It's time to take another look to the south--toward a steaming caldron of music that seems to produce an unlimited variety of jazz flavors. Cuba is at the epicenter, but ingredients come from around the Caribbean and beyond.
Here are a few hot offerings:
*** Jess "Chucho" Valdes, "Solo--Live in New York," Blue Note. This Grammy Award-winning Cuban pianist is very much his own man, whether working with the pioneering jazz band Irakere, leading his own quartet or--as in this set from a Lincoln Center show--as a soloist. Understandably, most of his essential qualities are present in each setting, if in more direct fashion in this go-it-alone mode. The first references that come to mind are the solo efforts of the legendary Art Tatum. Like Tatum, Valdes invests his performances with the full array of pianistic resources, from delicate interior harmonies to thunderous chording and sweeping, rhapsodic arpeggios. The difference is that Valdes' interpretations--almost exclusive of the original material--tend to take the same arc, alternating gentle phrasing with massive pounding. Often the effect is electrifying. At other times, the lyrical qualities of his program--which ranges from "Over the Rainbow" to such Spanish-language classics as "Besame Mucho," "El Manicero" and Munequita Linda"--are diminished in the process.
*** 1/2 Paquito D'Rivera, "Habanera," Enja Nova. Like Valdes, D'Rivera is a veteran of the '80s Cuban jazz scene that produced a startling array of gifted musicians. In this unusual outing, his clarinet and alto saxophone are positioned in frameworks provided by the mini-orchestra Absolute Ensemble and a rhythm section that features pianist Kenny Drew Jr. and percussionist Mino Cinelu. The music is far-reaching, embracing Dizzy Gillespie's "Birks Works," Juan Tizol's "Caravan," originals by D'Rivera and Cinelu, as well as rearranged versions of three Gershwin Preludes and variations on "I Got Rhythm" and "Cuban Overture." The results are splendid, a superb blend of soloing--especially from D'Rivera and Drew--with the lively timbres of the Absolute Ensemble. Look for this one in the best Latin jazz category in next year's Grammy nominations.
*** 1/2 Charlie Haden featuring Gonzalo Rubalcaba, "Nocturne," Verve. Say this about Haden: He sure knows how to make records. And he couldn't have picked a better partner to help explore a lovely program of romantic songs from Cuba ("En La Orilla del Mundo," "No Te Empenes Mas," "Tres Palabras" and "Contigo en La Distancia/En Nosotros") and Mexico ("Nocturnal," "Yo Sin Ti," "El Ciego" and "Noche de Ronda"). Guitarist Pat Metheny and saxophonists Joe Lovano and David Sanchez are on a few tracks, but the core trio of Haden, Rubalcaba and drummer Ignacio Berroa brings this stunning program to life. Add to that the passionate violin playing of Federico Britos Ruiz on three tracks, and it would be hard to imagine a more convincing blend of the subtle lyricism of jazz, the easy flow ofLatin (often rumba) rhythms and an enticing collection of songs.
*** 1/2 Omar Sosa, "Prietos," Ota Records, distributed by Harmonica Mundi. Cuban-born pianist Sosa, based in San Francisco since the mid-'90s, offers an omnivorous collection of sounds in this new release that afford an insightful portrayal of the explosive diversity taking place in the genre generally (and insufficiently) described as Latin jazz. Sosa's large ensembles steam through rap, hip-hop and funk grooves, shifting into Thelonious Monk-style accents, adding call-and-response vocals, Dizzy Gillespie-like brass sounds and the collectivity of Sun Ra's Solar Arkestra. No single element remains in focus for long, and the level of creativity is astonishingly high. "Prietos" demands, and rewards, repeated listening to reveal its many gripping facets.
*** Los Hombres Calientes: Irvin Mayfield & Bill Summers, "New Congo Square," Basin Street Records. Like Sosa, Mayfield and Summers has a determinedly contemporary perspective. In their case, however, they begin from a New Orleans point of view--not an unreasonable choice, given the musical melting pot the Crescent City has been for centuries. In a startling collection of tunes--23 in all--they bring together every imaginable sort of Latin rhythm without losing the essential connection with New Orleans jazz. A good part of the credit for holding it all together has to go to Cuban drummer Horacio "El Negro" Hernandez, with many of the tracks further enlivened by the presence of singer Issac Delgado as well as members of Irakere and the ReBirth Brass Band.