december coverMood Music

If one stylistic element of Latin music has remained unshakably consistent over the past half century, it is the ongoing presence and influence of big bands. From the glory days of Tropicana in Havana and the Palladium in New York City to the current scene, this venerable institution continues to define the sophistication and heady romanticism of tropical dance music and Latin jazz at the peak of these genres virile sophistication.

A decade after his death, the spirit of the late Tito Puente reverberates vibrantly on the dozen tracks of Many Moods (Amigos Music) by vocal siren Yolanda Duke and The Tito Puente Orchestra. While the release claims to be the first album by the famed group since the death of its late founder, the band, under the direction of José Madera, has in fact issued three excellent albums under the banner of The Latin Giants of Jazz. With the stylistically explosive Duke fronting the band, Many Moods represents the first foray by Tito’s men into a vocal-dominated program since the King and his orchestra partnered with singer La India in 1996.

Duke, a native of the Dominican Republic who worked regularly with Puente over the last decade of his life, is well suited for this demanding style. Her voice is strong and fiery and she injects a high quotient of visceral emotion into her interpretations. It’s not surprising that the vocal tigress La Lupe was one of her role models. Standout tracks include Duke’s performances on such Spanish language tracks as “Muchos Besos” by Rafael Hernández and “La Peleona,” a sizzling duet with special guest José Alberto “El Canario.” The album only falters when it ventures too far away from the band’s core Afro-Cuban, mambo-rooted sound into the pop music terrain of tunes by Stevie Wonder and Neil Sedaka and when La Duke’s ability to sell a song in English is tested, as on the standard “Misty.” But these are but minor distractions on an effort highlighted by the Puente band’s flashy dynamics and ingenious scores by such legendary arrangers as Ray Santos, Marty Sheller and Luis “Perico” Ortiz.

Bolero Nights (Venus) features trumpeter Brian Lynch and his Afro Cuban Jazz Orchestra in a lustrous and heartfelt marriage of boleros and jazz in a program in part inspired by the late jazz singer Billie Holiday and including several torch songs she recorded late in her career (“You’ve Changed” and “I’m A Fool To Want You”). These deeply soulful ballads are a perfect fit for Lynch’s bolero jazz adaptations.

Lynch is the veteran trumpet player who has been a key member of pianist Eddie Palmieri’s various ensembles in recent years and has learned the ins-and-outs of Latin music as well as any non-Latino in the business. While his undersized (only 10 musicians compared to the Puente band’s 18) ensemble lacks the rhythmic intensity of Tito’s high octane unit, that’s not Lynch’s intent here. He crafts honey-sweet orchestrations that emphasize the band’s sharply contrasting elements, with the molasses-rich sound of the baritone sax paired against the airy musings of guest Phil Woods’ alto sax and the leader’s own soaring, burnish trumpet excursions. Bolero Nights is a remarkable accomplishment.

Drummer Roland Vazquez’s The Visitor (Roland Music) is yet another variation on the classic Latin big band. Vazquez is a true pioneer -- a musician who learned the ropes of traditional Latin jazz and salsa early in his career and quickly moved beyond those traditional forms to become one of the Latin music’s true avant-gardists. The elemental Afro-Cuban rhythms that others remained steadfastly loyal to over time became only one of many points of reference this ever-searching instrumentalist, composer and arranger.

On The Visitor, Vazquez revisits some of the songs he created decades ago with his combo and transforms them into orchestral masterpieces, replete with complex nuances that make the seven suite-like tracks truly transcendental. The intricacy of the orchestrations demanded that Vazquez surrender his drum sticks to the great Cuban percussionist Ignacio Berroa and assume the rule of conductor. The title track’s trance-setting rhythmic motif, accented lightly by bass clarinet licks and clashing harmonics, sets the stage for introspective solos by saxophonist Joel Frahm and pianist Luis Perdomo. On “Guarabé,” a standard by Clare Fischer, the full force of Vazquez’s modernized Afro-Cuban vision takes flight in a flurry of brassy inflections and counter rhythms voiced by various sections of the large ensemble. On the whole, The Visitor is a thought-provoking tour-de-force delivered with a disarming level of both gusto and finesse.


Mark Holston