Today I want to tell you about another Latin-jazz masterpiece—this one recorded in December 1957. The album is Machito's Kenya: Afro-Cuban Jazz (Roulette), and it's easily one of the most exciting Latin-jazz albums ever recorded. (Machito is pictured above.) That's not just me saying so. Candido Camero, the conga legend who played on the date, agreed during a phone conversation yesterday.
I first heard Kenya back in the early 1970s, while working a summer high school job at Sam Goody, a popular New York record store that stood on 44th and Third Ave. For three months, I clerked in the jazz department with a mild-mannered retiree named Harry Lim. Harry was Keynote Records' producer in the 1940s and founder of Famous Door Records in the 1970s. Harry's job was to show me the ropes, and he gave me some jazz education that summer. Harry knew every jazz LP in the store, and many of the guys on those albums stopped by to chat with him. (That's Harry pictured behind Jelly Roll Morton).
One day, with Basie's Mambo Inn from April in Paris on the store's sound system. I told Harry how incredible that Latin arrangement was. Harry smiled, turned his right hand up and flicked his index finger twice for me to follow. Harry shuffled over to the small Latin section, leaned down in his red vest, and slid out Kenya. Harry told me to buy it that day, that I would never forget it. I did, and he was right.
Like the groundbreaking Chico O'Farrill recordings for Verve between 1951 and 1954 (Afro-Cuban Suite and The Second Afro-Cuban Suite), Kenya combined some of the greatest jazz musicians of the day with the hottest Latin artists.
The jazz artists on Kenya include alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley, trumpeters Doc Cheatham and Joe Newman, and trombonists Eddie Bert and Bart Varsalona. Among the Latin greats were trumpeter Mario Bauza, tenor saxophonist Ray Santos, Jr., trombonist Santo Russo and a cavalry of percussionists that included Candido and Carlos "Patato" Valdez. When I called Candido yesterday and asked him about the date, here's what he said:
"Oh my, Kenya. That was a fantastic session. One of the best ever. Wow, wow, wow. Very exciting. I remember I had a long solo on Wild Jungle. The album was very different. On both sides—the Latin side and the jazz side. The feel was beautiful. That day, it was one for everyone and everyone for one. Very together. And almost no re-takes. It was all done fast—one, two three."
Which is hard to believe given the complexity of A.K. Salim's tightly woven, high-impact Latin-jazz charts. Salim was a big-band jazz composer and arranger for Count Basie, Illinois Jacquet and Dizzy Gillespie. By the mid-1950s he also was writing sophisticated mambo charts for Tito Puente and Machito.
Cannonball Adderley is the star soloist on Kenya, though the trumpets and reeds get their share of limelight. Except for Tin Tin Deo (Gil Fuller and Chano Pozo) and Cannonology (Adderley), the remaining 10 tracks are foot-stomping Machito originals. And the album is relentless, from beginning to end, making it hard to select tracks that stand out. They all take your breath away. Conversation is probably my favorite, with its rubbery, handball arrangement—but Cannonology's heat, Wild Jungle's percussion, and Blues a la Machito's call-and-response line are up there, too.
In many ways, the session was designed to reprise the Latin-jazz energy of Machito's December 1948 session with Charlie Parker and the writing smarts of Chico O'Farrill's Afro-Cuban dates several years later. In fact, a number of the Latin musicians from the Parker date are here on Kenya, including trumpeters Bauza and Frank Davilla, and baritone giant Leslie Johnakins. Interestingly, Cannonball recorded this album two months after joining the Miles Davis Quintet and several months before recording Milestones in February 1958 and Something Else in March.
As Harry Lim used to say about recordings he'd recommend: "Buy it. Even if you don't like it now, you will."
JazzWax tracks: Kenya: Afro-Cuban Jazz is available here or at iTunes. It's a must if you love big band music and want to hear a perfect Latin-jazz marriage—complete with stop-time arrangements, aggressive percussion and shifting melody lines. Charlie Parker with Machito can be found on South of the Border here or at iTunes. Chico O'Farrill's Latin-jazz sessions for Verve can be found on a double-CD at iTunes or here.
Among A.K. Salim's leadership dates is a terrific album called Pretty for the People, which he recorded for Savoy two months before arranging Kenya. It's available at iTunes or here.
JazzWax video clips: To see Machito on Japanese TV in the early 1960s go here. Listen to the strong jazz influence in Machito's music by this date.