Caribbean Jazz Project
It is with more than a little pride that vibraphonist Dave Samuels presents the latest offering of the Caribbean Jazz Project, a group he co-founded almost a decade ago and has nurtured through a series of dramatic personnel changes and subtle shifts in stylistic focus. What began as an experiment has withstood the test of time, changing music trends, and shifting attitudes about both Latin music and jazz. The Gathering, the group's new release on the Concord Picante label, proves once again just how rewarding the marriage of jazz improvisation and tropical Latin rhythms can be when world-class musicians who possess an exceptional artistic vision are involved at every step of the creative process. That the CJP has become one of the premier groups associated with the Latin jazz tradition will be confirmed when the riches contained in the album's nine wondrous tracks are fully explored.
"The idea of the Caribbean Jazz Project has always been to explore the wealth of music that has evolved from the melding of the influences found in the Caribbean, Africa and Europe," says Samuels. "When we first formed, the sound was based around the combination of my vibraphone and marimba with saxophone and steel drums. We then reformed to create a totally new sonic landscape - keeping the mallet instruments, but adding flute and guitar as other lead instruments."
That incarnation, which was brought to fruition on the 2000 & 2001 Concord Picante releases New Horizons and Paraiso, expanded the percussion section into the realm of more authentic interpretation of Afro-Cuban styles by adding timbales and congas. "But at the same time," Samuels adds, "we challenged the traditional sound of the Latin-oriented rhythm section by not having piano as the harmonic glue."
The Gathering represents the newest twist on the CJP sound, with the Samuels' vibraphone and marimba and Dave Valentin's flute still out front, but this time sans guitar and with the addition of piano as a strong voice in the rhythm section.
The CJP has over time become a more central part of Samuels' artistic focus. Initially, he achieved renown through his association in the 1970s with the breakthrough Latin-influenced fusion group Spyro Gyra. The next step in the mallet master's career was a partnership with fellow vibraphonist David Friedman, with whom he formed the group Double Image and plunged into the world of highly unstructured, experimental jazz. In the 1990s, it was Latin-rooted styles that increasingly caught his ear, leading to the founding in 1995 of CJP with saxophonist Paquito D'Rivera and pans player Andy Narell.
Flutist Dave Valentin, co-leader of the CJP, came on board two years ago when the group released its debut Concord Picante project, New Horizons. A New York native of Puerto Rican heritage, Valentin is one of the most successful and critically acclaimed Latin instrumentalists of his generation. His career as a solo artist, recording and touring with his own group, has been augmented by such high profile opportunities as his role as music director of the late Tito Puente's all-star Latin jazz ensemble. Valentin's contributions shine throughout The Gathering, but are particularly expressive on his self-penned "See You In A Minute," a rhythmically bracing work he dedicates to the memory of a lifelong inspiration, the late Cuban flutist Jose Fajardo.
Featured as a special invited guest is the irrepressible D'Rivera, whose last tenure with the group was in the late 1990s. "When you play with Paquito," Samuels comments, "you always get his great skill and mastery as a player along with an incredibly high level of energy that electrifies the music and inspires everyone. It's a double whammy that never fails." The Cuban virtuoso's presence on "Rendezous," a Samuels original, and Thelonius Monk's well known "Bemsha Swing," provides an extra shot of adrenaline that ignites an explosion of improvisational creativity on these two engaging performances.
Sitting in on piano is Dario Eskanazi, the exciting young Argentine keyboardist who was a member of the original incarnation of the CJP and has been featured extensively in D'Rivera's working group in recent years. Vastly underrated as a soloist, Eskanazi's robust touch while playing the core Afro-Cuban rhythmic background figures and his inventively conceived solos make his involvement particularly rewarding on this latest installment of the CJP's pan-Caribbean stylistic survey. "Yes," Samuels confirms, "the addition of the piano in the rhythm section does move the sound in a more 'tipico' direction, which is a nice contrast from the last couple of records. Being such a great accompanist, soloist and composer, Dario is a wonderful addition to the group."
The rest of the CJP rhythm section also deserves special recognition. The Caribbean-based Latin rhythms that are the group's focus on The Gathering - mambo, cha-cha, and songo, among others - are intimately familiar to these elite players. But the dramatic shifts in tempo, intricate breaks, and challenging segues from one rhythm to another that are woven into the complex arrangements place exceptional demands on their individual and collective talents. Between them, bassist Ruben Rodriguez, timbalero Dafnis Prieto, and congueros Richie Flores, and Roberto Quintero boast professional experiences that range from work with such Latin music stalwarts as Tito Puente and Eddie Palmieri to modern jazz groups. They provide the CJP a confident, polished, and cohesive sound evident in only a few well establish Latin jazz ensembles and seem to relish the opportunity to tackle these traditional rhythms from a fresh perspective, allowing their individual virtuosity to flourish as perhaps never before.
Indeed, it's the quality of the group's arrangements and the variety of moods and rhythmic textures the carefully selected originals and standards provide that makes the CJP so distinctive. "I've always been interested in 'reinventing' standard tunes," Samuels readily admits. "It's a challenge to take a standard and alter it in way that is still recognizable, but at the same time changed in an unexpected way." "Stolen Moments," the Oliver Nelson classic, is cast in a compelling new form by the vibraphonist's thoughtful arrangement, which contrasts peppery percussion fills with velvety ensemble lines. "Bemsha Swing" is mambo-based, but, in keeping with the CJP's self-imposed mandate to blaze its own trail, studiously avoids the most obvious conventions of the traditional Cuban style as it energizes the composer's quirky theme with driving solos and a swell of gale force percussion.
"The Gathering is really our most group-oriented album to date," Samuels says, summing up what makes this latest recording from the Caribbean Jazz Project extra special. "Everyone's musical personality is well represented, from composing and arranging to soloing. In every regard, the session features a lot of variety, and that's what makes it so satisfying."