Guitar Fiesta

It’s easy to understand why guitars have played such an important role in the cultural development of the Americas. Their humble ancestors have been present in this part of the world since Cristóbal Colón arrived in 1492. The small cuatro and tres guitars of Cuba, Puerto Rico and Venezuela, for instance, have evolved over the centuries from the lute-like instrument called the vihuela poblana, or the Spanish Renaissance guitar, that sailors brought with them on early trans-Atlantic voyages. On the four releases explored here, the guitar takes center stage, updating various Latin American idioms through inventive and virtuosic performances.

Sammy Morales, an educator and veteran bassist in Puerto Rico, leads a group that includes another established string master, Gabriel Vicéns. Billed as the SM Quinteto, Morales’ self-produced Historia, Cuentos y Canciones is entrancing and richly detailed. The leader plays both fretted and fretless bass, at times taking the soloist’s role while elsewhere surrendering to Vicéns’ electric guitar. The effervescent “Vals para Gaby” (Waltz for Gaby) features a hint of tango-influenced romanticism via the presence of accordionist Ricky Martinez. “Las Preguntas” has the upbeat, joyous flavor of Brazilian fusion jazz, while Caribbean references are optimized on tunes like “Rumbita” and “Ni bombita, ni fuga, ni na’,” an amalgam of stylistic ingredients shaped by distinct rhythms and the driving groove of keyboardist Liza Micelli. Historia, Cuentos y Canciones is an apt title for such a bracing recording. Two Peru-born guitarists, both longtime residents of the U.S., find dramatically different ways to express their native heritage on their new sessions. Richie Zellon, a Lima native, focuses on the multi-dimensional character of the South American country’s coast-based Afro-Peruvian traditions, while Ciro Hurtado filters the essence of more pastoral, folkloric Andean music that he performs in a solo setting.

Without a doubt, Zellon is an exceptionally creative musician. A music alchemist par excellence, he takes risks with both his playing and the subject matter he tackles. His latest, Beatles (song-o-sau’rus), may sound routine, given that he’s handpicked nine favorites by the legendary Brit combo to perform, but his approach is far from conventional. With a rhythm section stocked with percussionists well schooled in the intricacies of Afro-Peruvian beats, he reinvents such classics as “Michelle” and “Lady Madonna” via such lilting, sometimes pungent rhythms as the festejo and marinera. Zellon’s guitar attack is gutsy, with a wide vibrato and a steely, rock-grounded sound. His forays are complemented by the honey-smooth saxophone voicings of Ed Calle, well known for his work with Gloria Estefan, the alternatingly sweet and dissonant bowing of Uruguayan violinist Federico Britos, the purity of Enrique Gardano’s classical guitar, and, on two tracks, even a bassoon. Zellon’s Beatles is a blast.

Hurtado, like his countryman, recalls being influenced as a teenager by the Beatles, BB King and Eric Clapton. His overt use of such references, however, is very nuanced on Los Angeles Blues (Inti Productions). While he utilizes some blues-like chordal shadings in his playing, this delicate and sonically radiant program has the clean and elegant touch of a perfection usually reserved for a concert hall performance. Hurtado demonstrates his ingenuity on works like his animated update of the beloved folk tune “La Negrita Tomasa.”

If Los Angeles Blues has the air formal recital, then Tales of a Gypsy (Earthscape Media), by Canadian guitarist Johannes Linstead, is an unbridled fiesta. Partly recorded in the Dominican Republic, where the guitarist spends half of his time, the session pulsates with rippling Afro-Caribbean percussion licks sprinkled on most of the tracks like so much spicy sofrito. Linstead, who recorded much of the album in the DR, has truly captured the authentic spirit of the Spanish flamenco style. He adroitly adapts the pop gypsy vibe to a range of idioms, such as on “Jungle Love,” which incorporates Andean pan pipes. The title tune features guest violinist Vasyl Popadiouk and the guitarist in a bout of instrumental one-upmanship that’s truly spellbinding. While some might classify Tales of a Gypsy as a smooth jazz project, that would be selling it far short. There’s an abundance of soul and sensational playing on this recommended release.

Mark Holston