Latin Jazz Lives On

Is it the end of a cherished era, or an opportunity for renewal? Those are the question many top-ranked Latino instrumentalists are asking this year in the wake of a decision by the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences (NARAS) to eliminate a slew of categories in the annual Grammy Awards competition. One being dropped, Latin Jazz, has created a storm of protest.

Given the quality of recent releases by some of the genre’s genuine masters, the timing of the move is more than a little odd. But, with or without the Grammy’s blessings, don’t count on this historic style’s maestros to disappear anytime soon. Even as the whims of the marketplace and changing tastes pose further challenges to the recording industry, true artistry usually prevails, as the examples of four iconic Cuban musicians demonstrate.

Trumpeter Arturo Sandoval, one of several noted Cubans who fled their homeland in the 1980s and ’90s, returns to the spotlight with a particularly impressive release. A Time For Love, on the Concord Jazz label, won a Latin Grammy for “Best Instrumental Album” and a slew of critical praise. The session is a romantic’s delight, with a backdrop of velvety strings created by Argentine arranger Jorge Calandrelli and 14 tracks that are both warm-blooded and contemplative. The performances range from classical works by Gabriel Fauré and Maurice Ravel to such gems of the Great American Songbook as “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes,” “Smile,” “Emily” and the title tune. Sandoval, who is often criticized for a no-holds-barred approach to soloing, focuses here on subtle emotional nuances and technical finesse while delivering a relaxed---and relaxing--- masterpiece.

Sandoval’s equally famed cohort, woodwind artist Paquito D’Rivera, is known for an all-encompassing appreciation of disparate musical idioms from throughout the hemisphere. He embraces that spirit on Panamericana Suite, on the MCG Jazz label, a true aural adventure that surveys the styles of many lands while featuring the musicianship of instrumentalists and vocalists from equally diverse cultural backgrounds. The eight works range, by nationality of the composers, from Canada to Argentina, while the individual tracks promise---and deliver---an equally diverse array of arresting performances. A breezy Caribbean vibe is injected by the presence of steel pans played by the legendary Andy Narell. Other regional flavors are provided by the phenomenal Colombian harpist Edmar Castañeda on the leader’s self-penned title tune, Argentine bandoneonista Hector del Curto on the classic tango “Prelúdio No. 3,” and D’Rivera’s soprano wife Brenda Feliciano on “Song For Peace.” Variety, virtuosity and an abundance of joie de vivre have always characterized D’Rivera’s recordings, and these same essential elements are joyfully present here.

Perhaps the last-ever winner of the Grammy for “Best Latin Jazz Album,” pianist and composer Jesús “Chucho” Valdés, simply overwhelmed the competition with an supercharged example of his energized and ceaselessly inventive musicianship on Chucho’s Steps for the 4Q label. “Zawinul’s Mambo” opens the set explosively with a tribute to the late jazz fusion pioneer, Weather Report founder and keyboardist Josef Zawinul. Valdés follows up in a reflective, almost reverential fashion on “Danzón,” a piece drenched in the nostalgia of the Havana of the 1920s. Featuring the leader’s Afro-Cuban Jazz Messengers, the set boasts instrumental fireworks galore, frequently ignited by trumpeter Reynaldo Alvarez and saxophonist Carlos Hernández. Surging rhythms that range from gritty funk to updated tropical Cuban tempos frame Valdés’ luminous and idiomatically vast pianistics.

Pianist and composer Gonzalo Rubalcaba has long expressed a desire to record an album that would take full advantage of his classical training. Although Faith, the celebrated musician’s latest and the first on his own 5Passion label, is not a “classical” performance in the truest sense, it does incorporate many attributes one would expect to find in a session by a classical artist. His touch is focused and crisp and absent are the fiery outbursts of Afro-Cuban rhythms and jazzy articulations for which he is known. In their place are meditative interludes laden with inquisitive and pensively wrought inventions. The 15-track program unfolds like a solitary stroll at dusk along a garden path and provides yet another example of Rubalcaba’s boundless imagination.

Mark Holston