Omar Sosa

In a curious coincidence, the theme of recent big band releases by drummer Dafnis Prieto, and pianists Chucho Valdés, Arturo O’Farrill and Omar Sosa,  is to pay tribute to some seminal figures in Latin jazz, creators such as Mario Bauzá, Dizzy Gillespie, Chano Pozo, Frank “Machito” Grillo, Chico O´Farrill, and Bebo Valdés.

Tributes have long become a lazy, ready-made narrative in jazz. What sets these releases apart is that rather than evoking the past, they celebrate the spirit of adventure and discovery that made these creators and their music immortal.


Familia Tribute to Bebo + Chico

The two-CD Familia: Tribute to Bebo & Chico is a multigenerational homage to the important composers, arrangers and bandleaders Bebo Valdés and Chico O´Farrill.  It features not only the playing and writing of their sons, Chucho and Arturo; but also the talents of the next generation: pianist Leyanis and drummer Jessie Valdés and trumpeter Adam, and drummer Zack O´Farrill.

“It’s important to me that Familia is not just a nostalgia project. It cannot be,” said Arturo O’Farrill in the notes accompanying the release. “Bebo and Chico were both forward-looking creators so, for us, it was important not just to recreate the music they left us, but to capture the zeal and vision they had for progress. They were innovators.”

Far from sentimental, Familia often suggests a probing celebration of Afro-Latin jazz, from the foundational sound of the masters to the still-developing work of their young heirs. In fact, the overall tone of Familia is often urgent, even tough at times, more New York than Havana — which is not to say there are no warm, touching moments.

Disc one, featuring O’Farrill’s Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra, includes readings of Bebo Valdés elegant “Ecuación,” a piece he wrote for Dizzy Gillespie in 1982 and later orchestrated for his 2004 “Suite Cubana;” and Chico O’Farrill’s “Pianitis,” originally commissioned by Machito to be conducted by Arturo. If someone wants shorthand of the classic Latin big band sound, here are two masters at work, each effective in his own way.

Arturo O’Farrill’s “Three Revolutions” brings a dramatic change of pace and character. It’s a sprawling, ambitious piece, full of fascinating musical details, often suggesting both anger and hope. It won O’Farrill a Grammy for Best Instrumental Composition. In contrast, Chucho Valdés´s “Tema de Bebo,” arranged by Hilario Durán, plays like an embrace of a song.

Two originals — the opening track “BeboChicoChuchoTuro,” showcasing both pianists; and the closing “Fathers, Mothers, Sons, Daughters,” highlighting the talents of their offspring — bookend the disc. It’s a clever set up for disc two, which focuses on bridging the history and future of the music. Here, tracks by Adam and Zack O’Farrill and Jessie Valdés sit side-by-side with pieces by Chico, Chucho, and Bebo. The closing track — a revisiting of Bebo Valdés’ landmark 1952 “Con Poco Coco,” a piece credited as the first recorded descarga, Cuban jam session — offers a good place to stop, look back and ahead.
Familia is a worthy tribute to two great masters by the people who knew them best.


Back to the Sunset

Back to the Sunset, Dafnis Prieto’s first outing with his own big band, is his tribute to a musically diverse group of creators —a statement in itself. An exceptional drummer and astute, original composer and arranger, Prieto chose immortals in Afro-Cuban jazz such as Mario Bauzá, Dizzy Gillespie, Chico O´Farrill, Tito Puente, and Bebo Valdés; but also Brazilian standouts Egberto Gismonti and Hermeto Pascoal, and jazz innovators such as Andrew Hill, Steve Coleman, and Henry Threadgill. And that’s not even half of the full list. It’s a long, and in some cases, surprising, roll call that only adds up after listening.

Just don’t expect imitations or obvious references in the music.

“This is a tribute through my own eyes, my own experience and it’s a tribute to my own music,” Prieto told me recently. “My intention was not to mimic or make music similar to [the music of] any of them. I don’t think they would’ve appreciated that, either. I just want to offer a tribute to them, my way.”

As for the repertoire, Back to the Sunset includes new works, arrangements of some originals he has recorded himself (such as “Two For One,” from Triangles and Circles, or “Prelude Para Rosa,” and “The Sooner the Better,” from Taking the Soul For a Walk) or by others, such as Song for Chico and The Triumphant Journey,” previously recorded by Arturo O’Farrill and the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra.

The recording opens with “Una Vez Mas” (dedicated to Tito Puente, Eddie Palmieri and Bryan Lynch, who plays on the piece) with a sly nod to the opening of “Manteca” — and takes off from there. Powered by Prieto, the rhythm section is resourceful, nimble and exact. (“With the big band, I feel like I have a responsibility to be a little bit more precise, more clear, and form-oriented. [With the smaller groups] we can take more risks,” he said.) Perhaps less expected in his first outing with a large ensemble is how deftly he deploys the different instrumental groups in the band and the densities of the textures.

Consider the conversation between brass, horns, and flutes in the smartly constructed “The Sooner the Better.” Or follow the storytelling in “Out of the Bone,” which includes a solo baritone sax intro, a crisp hyper-mambo, a drum solo and a trombone feature, and that’s only part of the tale. Or take in the delightful “Danzonish Potpourri,” which starts by suggesting an Afropop groove before sliding into an elegant danzón — and variations, of course. Meanwhile, “Prelude Para Rosa” opens with what sounds like a Monkian theme, gently bounces forward and before taking a Brazilian turn with a hummable melody, a passageway to yet another place.

In fact, Prieto seems to have blended a world of influences so organically that to list them is to miss the point. In Back to the Sunset, Prieto’s tribute to the creators is turning their lessons into a borderless, global music.


OMAR SOSA & NDR BIGBAND Arranged by Jaques Morelenbaum

Sequels are rarely as good as the original. And then there’s Es:sensual, a follow up to Ceremony (2010), the previous collaboration between Sosa; Brazilian cellist, composer and arranger Jaques Morelenbaum, and the NDR Big Band (the Hamburg Radio Jazz Orchestra) and Sosa’s first recording with a big band. Es:sensual builds on the original idea and the results are not just as good, but better.

Whether because of personal growth of all involved or simply greater familiarity and comfort with the music, where Ceremony offered proper readings of the music and by-the-book grooves, correct but short of stirring, Es:sensual has a looser, more sensual feel. Morelenbaum and the band seem to have taken greater ownership of the material, and both the writing and the playing, as an ensemble and in the soloing, sound more personal and engaged.

As in Ceremony, in Es:sensual Sosa revisits with the big band pieces he has recorded in previous outings with his various ensembles. He reworks the rousing, African-tinged “Glu Glu,” from Across the Divide (2009); and gives the elegiac “Reposo” a lush treatment, quite a change from the near-minimalist version in Mulatos (2004). There are also fresh takes of classic Cuban music styles such as cha cha cha (the cheeky “Cha Cha Du Nord,” played with a perfectly paced, seductive insouciance), bolero (the soulful “My Three Notes,” originally from Free Roots, 1997) and danzón (“L3zero”).

Whether he sources a particular piece on popular dance music or religious ritual rhythms; Cuban tradition or a fusion of styles from the African diaspora, there’s a deep lyricism in Sosa’s work. Moreover, whatever its basic material might be, Sosa adds to the music a sense of joy. It’s to Morelenbaum, the NDR band and its soloists’ credit that they have expanded the colors and added muscle to the music without losing sight of its essence. They can be precise and intense when needed, but throughout they often sound as if they are playing at a warm place, outdoors, in the evening, with a slight breeze at their backs and an elegant crowd of dancers in front of them.

In Es:sensual, the tribute to the masters is never explicit, but wherever they are listening, they are probably getting a kick out of it.