All that Jazz

Since the late 1940s, Latino musicians and collaborators from many lands have experimented with and refined the mixture of various combinations of Latin rhythms and jazzy ingredients. While the resulting stylistic hybrids, commonly lumped into a one-size-fits-all category called “Latin jazz,” have over the decades assumed many personalities, the movement’s mainstream has proven to be overly tradition-bound and stubbornly resistant to significant change. The passing in recent years, however, of many of the idiom’s founding fathers has provided an opening for a new generation of innovators to step into the spotlight. A handful of current releases prove that the fruits of a group of supremely talented young artists have been well worth the wait.

The artistic vision of Córdoba, Argentina native Pedro Giraudo, now well established on the New York City music scene, it a conspicuous example of the kind of revolutionary change that is taking place. A bassist, composer and arranger, he admits that when he arrived in the U.S. a decade ago, he was largely clueless about the jazz tradition. “At the time I started working on my undergraduate degree at the Manhattan School of Music, I thought that Duke Ellington was Dizzy Gillespie,” Giraudo admits today. “That’s how lost I was. I finally learned that he was not the guy with the big cheeks! I was exposed to all of that music over here.”

Giraudo’s new album, El Viaje (PGM), is a stunning example of large ensemble orchestration, proving that in a remarkably short time, the Argentine has absorbed the wisdom of such hallowed arrangers as Ellington, Gil Evans and Carla Bley and has staked out his own distinctive identity. The performances of his 12-member group are an uncommon mixture of orchestral bravado and chamber music-like structure and finesse. Significantly, most of his writing appropriates the spirit but not the outright form of his country’s beloved tango. “The element of tango that I use is the emotional quality of the music,” he explains, “the melancholy and the sadness. That’s always present.”

Arturo Stable, a native of Santiago de Cuba who came to the U.S. to study music at Boston’s famed Berklee College, isn’t the first percussionist to head his own ensemble, but he is certainly one the most all-around talented congueros ever to assume that role. Call (Origen Records), featuring an all-star quintet that includes drummer Francisco Mela and pianist Aruan Ortiz, is a dazzling showcase of Stable’s talents as a composer, arranger and performer. His approach to composing, he explains, includes “spending hours at the piano and doing a lot of research, including checking out classical compositions and studying harmonies used by Ravel, Strauss and Schoenberg.” The fresh and stimulating results, which reflect a broad variety of Afro-Cuban, Iberian, North American jazz and Middle Eastern moods, are rhythmically guided by the leader’s steady hand in the rhythm section. He navigates technically challenging rhythms in odd time signatures while never compromising his inherently melodic and warm touch.

Another Cuban émigré, Manuel Valera, is a pianist and composer who follows in the broad footsteps of such pianistic innovators as Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Michel Camilo and Danilo Perez. Currents, his latest for the boutique MAXJAZZ label, is a standard piano trio session, split between standards by Irving Berlin and George Gershwin and his own inviting originals. The performance, however, is anything but standard. Currents is an apropos title; the trio’s fluid interplay is one of the session’s distinctive features, as is the organic development of themes and rhythmic flow of the program. Nothing is forced or contrived. There is an elegant quality to Valera’s piano style, underscored from time-to-time by the unmistakable evidence of his classical training, even when the tempos are burning.

Although he hails from the small town of Punta Cardón in Venezuela, pianist and composer Ed Simon has ascended to the upper ranks of international jazz keyboardists thanks to his brilliant technique and translucent sound, the inquisitive nature of his improvisations, and the intellectual bent of his compositions. Poesía, on Italy’s Cam Jazz label, features an all-star trio and fulfills the promise of its title on such pensive, self-penned works as the Chopin-inspired “My Love For You” and “Winter,“ with its swirl of thematic moods. “This is a time where I’m beginning to look deeper into life,” Simon notes, “and to experience a blossoming of seeds that were planted by many others. Poesía is a sound-picture of this special time in my life.”

Mark Holston