For me, great Latin-jazz is almost exclusively about taste. Since one doesn't become a Latin-jazz musician without extraordinary instrumental and improvisational skills (the music is simply too complex), what separates great recordings from so-so or tedious ones is the artist's choice of material and how the music is served up.
For many lay listeners who resist Latin-jazz, their big beef often is excessive, overwhelming percussion and open-ended solos that show off speed and endurance but offer little in the way of heart and poetry. To each his own, of course. But if you find yourself in this group—those who aren't generally swept away by Latin-jazz—there are two CDs by leading percussionists you should know about.
The first is Afro Blue Monk by the Chembo Corniel Quintet and the other is Live in Hollywood by Poncho Sanchez and His Latin Jazz Band. Both offer plenty of percussive pep. But more important, they feature songs that have a beginning, middle and end—and build toward a purpose and statement without taxing the listener.
Afro Blue Monk features Chembo on a range of percussion instruments, including the conga and bata. He's joined by Ivan Renta (saxes), Elio Villafranca (piano), Crolo Derosa (bass) and Vince Cherico (drums)—with special guests Ileana Santamaria (vocal), Frank Fontaine, (clarinet/flute) and Ogduardo Roman Diaz and Diego Lopez (bata). By the way, the bata looks like a conga but has a more tapered, hourglass silhouette.
Emiliano by pianist Villafranca is a Latin-fusion piece that rises and falls splendidly with tasty rhythms and percussion in just the right spots. Mongo Santamaria's Afro Blue features Mongo's daughter on vocal. And Wayne Shorter's Deluge (from JuJu) is given a sizzling Latin-jazz spin.
Sanchez's album is a little more old school. There's the mambo-influenced Poncho Sanchez Medley, a terrific merging of Mambo Inn and On Green Dolphin Street, and Morning, a passionate tribute to the song's composer and Sanchez's friend—the late Clare Fischer.
Interestingly, Sanchez's band also takes on Afro Blue, and the comparison makes for compelling listening. Both versions move at a brisk pace and seize upon the original's intent and groove.
Two Latin-jazz albums with grace and enough curves that any jazz fan will dig.
JazzWax clips: Here's Emiliano from Chembo Corniel's Afro Blue Monk...
Here's Poncho Sanchez's rendition of Clare Fischer's Morning...