Album of the Week – Papa Mambo, The John Santos Quintet

by chip on September 8, 2007

In a musician’s world, the end of one project signals the start of a new journey towards a unique musical destination. When John Santos and the Machete Ensemble bid the world farewell in 2006, it marked the end of an era in Bay Area Latin Jazz. After over twenty years of innovative experimentation with the large ensemble, Santos embarked in a new direction, forming a quintet. A new voyage simultaneously contains an inherent beauty in its untapped potential and an uneasy feeling in the vast horizon. The quintet’s first album, Papa Mambo, narrates the trip into the future, presenting a mature and unified approach.

Strong Musical Tools and Creative Approach
The Quintet demonstrates a creative spirit and high-level musicianship on several arrangements. Santos sings a song for the Orisha Shango on “Alabí Oró” while flautist John Calloway intertwines melodic lines. Bassist Saul Sierra solos against the batá rhythm, leading back into a vocal improvisation fueled by pianist Marco Diaz’s strong montuno. The band takes the popular dance piece “Guararé” back to its Changüi roots, creating a perfect feature for Vilató’s immense bongo skills. As the song builds momentum, Calloway and trumpet player Ray Vega trade lively improvised lines. The band provides a powerful drive to Vega’s “Second Wind,” supporting the subtle melody with a firm rhythm section. After strong statements by both Calloway and Vega, Diaz storms through a fiery improvisation, opening the way for a particularly inspired timbale solo from Vilató. The band brings a personal passion to each of these interpretations, displaying a wide musical knowledge.

Original Compositions Form A Unique Ensemble Voice
Several quintet members also contribute original compositions. Sierra’s descarga “Tercer Grado” contains a syncopated structure and lots of improvisatory space. The composer recalls Cuban bassist Cachao on his extended solo, while Santos brings a defined musical voice to his exciting conga feature. After a rubato introduction, Diaz pays tribute to a variety of influential Latin pianists with his “Raices al Cielo.” An elegant melody leads into up-tempo propulsion featuring intensive solos from Calloway and Vilató. Santos’ introspective “Duermete” makes a highly personal statement over a Puerto Rican yubá cuartiao rhythm. Vocalist Maria Márquez carries a sincere spirituality in her voice, complemented by a large chorus. Calloway outlines a dignified melody on Sierra’s “Mi Niña.” Violinist Anthony Blea adds an authentic touch to the elegant danzón until the band opens the mambo section for Diaz’s insightful solo. The group’s strong songwriting skills form the foundation for a unique ensemble voice, full of personality.

Broad Colors From Additional Musicians
Several tracks utilize additional musicians, bringing a further depth to the album’s overall sound. Santaria rhythms attributed to the Orisha Obatalá form the foundation for the group’s tribute to legendary Cuban musician Cachao on “Papa Mambo.” Vocalist Jerry Medina provides strong clarity to the song while Ray Vega’s muted trumpet explores the song’s harmonic territory. Sierra’s distinct bass groove opens the rumba “Para Que Niegas,” giving way to a delicate vocal from Orlando Torriente. After an extended trumpet statement from Vega, Torriente demonstrates his power as an improviser until Santos ends the song with a fiery conga solo. Drum kit player Paul Van Wageningen sets up a funky second line groove as the band moves through rhythm changes on “Laneology.” The group transitions into swing for Vega’s solo and a soulful scat solo by Medina. These musicians support the quintet, and allow them to apply their creative tools on a larger scale.

A New Journey and a Rich Future
Santos’ quintet maintains a high standard on Papa Mambo, exploring new possibilities while staying focused on a sharply defined musical vision. The group employs authentic Caribbean traditions as a foundation for the jazz writing and improvisations. The band’s songwriters respect the music’s history, while integrating their own creative voices. The core quintet approaches the combination of past and present with both reverence and daring, which evolves into a highly individual statement. The additional Bay Area musicians never deviate from the tone set by the quintet, but instead solidify their concept. While this album may represent the start of a new journey for Santos and his group, it promises a rich future with an exciting destination ahead.

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