As feisty a fiesta as instrumental music can offer, The Caribbean Jazz Project is a historic musical event combining the all-star talents of Cuban saxophone and clarinet great Paquito D'Rivera, steel pan legend Andy Narell and vibes/marimba master Dave Samuels in a loose, playful setting as exotic as the colorful artwork on the CD cover. Melodic and percussive, explosive in spots while passionate and romantic in others, the collection is about tropical pleasures, seductive atmospheres, and easily the most vibrant and dynamic ensemble interaction of any jazz album this year. The three principals wrap themselves around the spicy, relentless grooves of Dario Eskenazi (piano), Oscar Stagnaro (bass), Luis Conte (percussion) and Mark Walker (drums), creating music that simmers and beats like the heart of an island on fire.
The Project began life as a concert in the Summer of 1993 at the Central Park Zoo in New York. A promoter came to Samuels, asking him to assemble some type of special event, and Samuels (who had recorded with Narell numerous times) called Narell, then the man on the top of his wish list, D'Rivera. Once the rhythm section was assembled, the only provision was that each member of the trio bring charts from his own catalog. The jam was on, and Samuels and Company liked the way they sounded. After a date in Louisville the following February, Narell was asked to contact his people at the International Music Network, and to see about sending out "feelers" to interested venues and/or record labels.
They honed their act with a week of shows at the Blue Note in Toyko and signed on to their first release for Heads Up International, Ltd. Recorded mostly in one or two takes, with few overdubs, this collection of 11 free-spirited tunes captures the intensity of the moment, the humor and the integrity of the music. The Caribbean Jazz Project plans to tour extensively during the Summer and Fall of 1995.
As all are renowned composers, the tune selection was highly democratic. D'Rivera has two solo tunes ("Como Un Bolero," "Afro"), Samuels also two ("Latin Quarter," "Café España"), the team of Samuels-D'Rivera two ("One for Tom," "Paco & Dave"), Narell three ("Three Amigos" "Carousel," "Abracadabra"), with a composition by Alain Mallet ("Valse Triste") and the classic bolero by Armando Guerrero ("Todo Aquel Ayer"). Each member has their own unique take on the chemistry and musical magic created by The Caribbean Jazz Project.
Says D'Rivera: "It's a melting pot of a melting pot, throwing together South of the Border rhythms from Latin America, Brazil, the Caribbean, Cuba, and slowing it up for a waltz or two. We mixed the island sounds that Andy plays into a jazz language. Our main interest was to learn from each other, learn from the other guy what he may know better than you."
"For instance," he continues, "I know the Cuban thing and have worked with lots of Brazilian musicians, but I learned the Caribbean style from Andy, and picked up a lot of grooves from bassist Oscar Stagnaro. And what can I say about Dave? He's so versatile with the mallets, he has so much finesse, and with a swinging motion. For this kind of music, you need a sense of humor. It should be fun."
"Caribbean and Latin music share the same roots, but are very different. The Hispanic sounds are unique from those on the French and English-owned islands. Ours is very uptight, while the Calypso beat is more relaxed, laid back. The whole thing about interacting with the sounds of other cultures is learning to pay respect to the music. You don't need to be from Cuba to play Cuban music. But if you respect it, it sounds deep and sincere."
Samuels has another view of how these three different personalities connect: "We have a real consensus about how we want this group to sound. We want the music to express the rhythms, the dance, the religion and the spontaneity of the moment by painting a picture that's really a composite of all three of us. "
"We were fortunate and had an opportunity to perform this music before going into the studio. It gave us time to live with the music -- to shape and mold it so that by the time we started recording we were more relaxed and confident. That's why we were so successful in capturing the spirit of this music," Samuels says.
For Narell, testing uncharted waters has been the trademark of his career playing a most unusual instrument. "There was a certain immediate connection between us and our sounds," he recalls. "Most of the music I play has had to pave its own road, so I was right at home in the experimental phase. The whole challenge is taking three unusual lead instruments and working out the inherent bugs which come from bringing them together."
"The solutions," he offers, "lie in how you orchestrate the music. We can't all play the melody all the time. When I wrote, I kept in mind how melodies would sound on sax or marimba, focusing on the counterpoint between the three of us, and the dialogue between the rhythm section and the lead instruments.
"We are all big fans of dance and carnival music and we all have serious compositional backgrounds," Narell continues. "It was a challenge learning each others music, but once we mastered it, we felt we had achieved something special."
Everyone in the music business always seems concerned as to just how to label music, and the simple title of The Caribbean Jazz Project seemed to cover all bases in as simple a way as possible. As Samuels explains, "Caribbean defines part of what we do, and jazz defines the other part."