Album of the Week – From The Badlands, Papo Vazquez Pirates Troubadours

by chip on August 10, 2007

Poet Lola Rodriguez del Tio declared Puerto Rico and Cuba as “two wings of the same bird,” yet many listeners and young musicians loose sight of Puerto Rico’s contributions to this shared musical lineage. Many pioneering Latin Jazz musicians hold Puerto Rican heritage, yet the majority of Latin Jazz repertoire mixes jazz harmonies with Cuban rhythms. New York Puerto Rican musicians carved a unique sound through their creative reinvention of Cuban structures, yet most listeners hear Salsa’s Cuban rhythms rather a Puerto Rican identity. Knowledgeable musicians dig into Puerto Rico’s traditional music, but young musicians wanting to learn “Latin” music often overlook Bomba, Plena, and Danza in favor of Son, Songo, and Cha Cha Cha. Papo Vazquez Pirates Troubadours take a different stance on From The Badlands, balancing the relationship between Puerto Rico and Cuba while exploring the improvisational space between them.

Strong Puerto Rican Identity
Puerto Rican cultural references provide the foundation for several songs. Vazquez alternates melodic statements with remaining winds over a Bomba Sica rhythm on “Bomba en Monte.” After a strong solo from Vazquez, Willie Williams builds excitement through the passionate use of his soprano sax’s upper register. Pianist Edsel Gomez’s strong thematic development and harmonic movement builds intensity back into the melody. From the opening coro to the sparse chordal backdrop, “Enemy Within” brings a funky side to Bomba. Vazquez takes advantage of this character, slipping between catchy melodies and implied swing. Gomez breaks up his initial melodic approach with dense chords outside the tonal center. The menacing melody and sparse chordal accompaniment on “Yuba’donbe” leaves room for the percussion to assert a powerful Bomba Yuba. Vazquez immediately makes an authoritative statement, alternating between strong rhythmic ideas and virtuosic runs. Williams uses his raspy and biting saxophone tone to force syncopated rhythmic ideas. A descending horn figure introduces a powerful percussion solo full of authentic Bomba rhythms. Vazquez pays tribute to deceased Puerto Rican trumpet player and former Batacumbele band mate Juancito Torres on “Donde Esta Juan.” Nelson Jaime’s muted trumpet trades melodic phrases with the winds, pushed forward by the rhythm section’s relentless groove. Strong horn bursts break up short improvised statements from Vazquez, Jaime, and Cuatro player Yomo Toro, until a mambo announces the entrance of vocalist Herman Olivera. The powerful presence of Puerto Rican musical traditions assert a unique identity throughout these songs, making a strong argument for more frequent usage in Latin Jazz.

A Balance of Traditional Ideas
Other songs breathe new life into traditional dance structures and Cuban rhythms. The rhythm section alternates between traditional salsa rhythms and a funky Bomba on the highly danceable “El Macanaso.” Olivera holds the song together with a strong vocal and improvised pregóns, while the rest of the band plays mambos over a vivid picture of a street scene. The group members bring their individual voices to the straight-ahead Latin Jazz blowing session on “Si Señor Bob.” Both Vazquez and Williams combine jazz informed solos with interesting rhythmic ideas until Gomez solos with both a modern jazz approach and traditional Latin figures. Rhythmic horn melodies lead the way into an inventive and coloristic drum solo before ending with an exciting conga solo. “Los Mediocres” opens with a traditional salsa format, with Olivera’s vocal guiding the band. Gomez’s minor montuno slowly segues the song towards a funky timba feel, eventually reaching a breakdown behind a sax driven mambo. After Olivera delivers more strong pregón work, the song moves into an Irakere influenced funk for Gomez’s highly syncopated solo and the horns’ free improvisation. These pieces bring an equality to the album, recognizing important elements of Latin music.

A Consistent Jazz Foundation
Vazquez also investigates the relationship between traditional jazz and Latin music. From the initial frenetic phrase, “The Mighty MF’s” sets an energetic pace that matches the band’s enthusiasm. The rhythm section quickly moves between swing and salsa at times blurring the distinction between the two rhythms. Sherman Irby plows his quick alto sax lines through the song while Vazquez takes advantage of the different feels to shape his ideas. Williams plays with a cutting tenor sax tone, asserting strong bop lines until Gomez presents a fluid combination of melodicism and rhythmic invention. “Lina’s Waltz” presents a strong contrast by focusing exclusively on swing. The jazz waltz gets a sensitive treatment from all the players. Vazquez plays with a melodic and reflective approach, but still maintains his primary voice through the implication of syncopated figures. Williams’ tenor sax solo explores the song’s passion with a Coltrane-esqe intensity, while Irby creatively manipulates the changes. Gomez makes a short and thoughtful statement before bassist Ricky Rodriguez delivers a variety of melodic ideas through short rhythmic phrases. Obviously jazz remains the driving force behind Vazquez’s Latin music explorations.

An Important Musical Vision
The musical blurring between Cuba and Puerto Rico stems from many sources, but Vazquez clarifies his vision without excuses on From The Badlands. He prioritizes Bomba throughout the album, clearly stating a rich understanding of Puerto Rican traditions. Vazquez utilizes Cuban rhythms on an equal basis, recognizing the important contributions of that musical heritage. At the same time, he creatively blends jazz ideals, consistently prioritizing improvisation and his band’s personal statements. Resultantly, Vazquez presents a complete view of Latin Jazz; setting an important tone that remains unmatched among most artists. By balancing both wings of del Tio’s bird, Vazquez and his band fly unhindered through an exciting array of musical ideas, exposing the beauty of an equal musical heritage.

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