World & Latin

Chris Slawecki

Profound Peak In Yo


Roberto Fonseca has led not only the consolidation but the advancement of the modern and traditional music of his native Cuba through his thoughtful incorporation of urban, African and jazz rhythms. Yo, released on Concord Jazz, takes a quantum leap forward in Fonseca's journey. "This is the objective of the album: To touch the African roots without forgetting where I came from, without forgetting Cuba," he explains. "On Yo, I want to delve deep into my roots in light of my experiences."

Like most great music, Yo reveals different layers of beauty with repeated listening. "Chabani" and "Gnawa Stop" cross-pollenate rhythms from Cuba, Algeria and Morocco; "7 Rayos" builds from acoustic guitar and piano into a shadowy musical atmosphere thickened by electronics, percussion and vocal incantation.

Fonseca is not only a songwriting alchemist but a deep, intense piano and keyboard player, too. Rippling acoustic piano pours out the melody of "Bibisa" like water washing upon vocalist Fatomata Diawara's song. It leads drums and percussion in the churning Cuban rhythms that tear into the opening "80s,"and builds "Mi Negra Ave Maria" into its crescendo behind Mike Ladd's spoken-word improvisation -- a profound lyrical, musical and emotional peak that I cannot urge you strongly enough to experience for yourself.

Yo was released in Europe in 2012; the French music magazine Vibrations named it Album of the Year, The Sunday Times (London) listed it among their annual Top Ten albums list, and it won two Cubadisco Awards (the Cuban Grammys).

John C. Bruening

Brazilian Surprise


Although a well established artist in her native Brazil for many years, vocalist Ithamara Koorax didn’t connect with American audiences until Serenade In Blue became available in the U.S. market on the Milestone label in 2000. Within a couple years after the release, she scored the number four spot in the Down Beat Readers Poll behind high-profile luminaries Cassandra Wilson, Diana Krall and Dianne Reeves.

Recorded in 1997 and 1998, Serenade In Blue is filled with engaging pop jazz tunes drawn from sources all over North and South America and Europe. What holds it all together is Koorax’s rich vocal presence that spans three languages and a multitude of styles and shades.

Among the album’s generous selection of spirited and engaging tracks is the thumping and syncopated “Mas Que Nada,” which pipes Koorax’s voice through heavy reverb yet never detracts from its rich, brassy quality. In similar fashion, Koorax’s cover of the French pop classic, “Un Homme Et Une Femme” (“A Man and a Woman”), demonstrates her mastery of French and follows a retro-flavored backbeat that accentuates her sensuality

But Koorax is equally comfortable in slower, quieter territory. The arrangement of “Moon River” relies heavily on a lighter-than air harp accompaniment, while “The Shadow of Your Smile” positions her squarely within a shimmering organ and synthesizer combination, all of which is underscored by a persistent but tasteful backbeat.

While Koorax’s subsequent recordings enjoyed similar successes in the States, her Serenade In Blue will always be remembered as the pleasant surprise that introduced her jazz audiences north of the border.

David Shannon

A Family Affair


Pete Escovedo’s Concord Picante release, Live From Stern Grove Festival, is a bright and evocative live Latin jazz album recorded at the famed San Francisco venue in July 2012, fronted by Escovedo and backed by a luminary band, including guest legendary trumpeter Arturo Sandoval. The release also features performances by Escovedo’s percussionist daughter, Sheila E., as well as sons Peter Michael and Juan. The live atmosphere suits the album’s big sound, and Escovedo’s rousing selection of covers and originals brings the full power of the band to the fore.

The name Escovedo carries a lot of weight in the realm of entertainment. Hailing from San Diego, California, but calling the world of Latin music home, this brotherhood of natural performers has a long history of collaboration, although each brother is known for a distinct take on a wide range of music. Eldest sibling Pete Escovedo and his brothers Coke and Phil formed the Escovedo Brothers Latin Jazz Band in 1960, while younger siblings Alejandro, Mario, and Javier played with legendary '70s, '80s, and '90s underground punk acts the Nuns, the Dragons, and the Zeros. Alejandro Escovedo’s later career blended rock, soul, and Tex Mex.

Percussion also plays a major role in the family’s music. Carlos Santana hired Pete and Coke to play percussion in his group in 1972, and Prince made Sheila E. a household name when he hired her to tour and record with him as his Purple Rain album was about to turn the music world on its ear.

John C. Bruening

Heroic Gesture


Pianist Hilton Ruiz was a lesser-known but highly respected figure in Latin jazz circles, and was considered one of the top bandleaders in the genre throughout the 1980s and ‘90s. One has to wonder whether his death at age 54 (he slipped into a coma after an accidental fall in 2006 and never recovered) robbed him of what would have been greater acclaim in subsequent decades. Regardless of his untimely demise, he left behind an impressive body of work that includes Heroes, a 1993 album named for his nine-piece band, all of whom convene for a nine-song set of Latin-flavored and straight-ahead jazz classics.

The high-powered roster on this nine-song recording includes a mix of veterans and up-and-comers: saxophonist David Sanchez, trumpeter Charlie Sepulveda, trombonist Steve Turre, bassist Andy Gonzalez, drummer Ignacio Berroa, and percussionist Giovanni Hidalgo. The legendary Tito Puente sits in on three of the tracks.

The upbeat and percussive “Sonny’s Mood” opens the set, and features extensive solo lines from David Sanchez’s soaring sax and Ruiz’s cascading piano. “Guataca,” the following track, is slightly more reserved but still simmering, thanks to the combined solo work of Puente, Sepulveda and Turre.

Other noteworthy entries include the zesty “Little Suede Shoes,” the even handed but intriguing “Maiden Voyage,” and the quiet and lyrical rendition of Dizzy Gillespie’s “Con Alma,” a piano-trumpet duet that dispenses with the rhythm section to allow the two musicians maximum room in the spotlight.

Heroes is, as the title suggest, a gathering of Latin jazz titans. Out front and leading the charge was a pianist whose brilliant career -- though three decades in all -- was all too brief.