The Revisiting series features albums from the past that played a significant role in Latin Jazz history. The purpose of this series is to introduce new Latin Jazz listeners to important albums and look back at these albums in historical perspective. Each entry will jump to a different point in Latin Jazz history – this week sends us back to 1961.
When Mongo Santamaria arrived stateside in 1950, he brought a strong musical foundation that allowed him to perform in a variety of Latin music contexts. A lifetime playing music earned him a broad familiarity with Cuban dance music and knowledge of its performance practice. His roots as a rumbero and traditional drummer helped him work in folkloric settings ranging from Santeria rhythms to rumba. Years of experience in Havana’s casinos and nightclubs gave him the power and drive to push Latin big bands towards an addictive groove. His finesse and improvisational prowess made him a perfect Latin Jazz conguero in both large and small settings. This flexibility ensured a steady stream of work with high profile bandleaders like Tito Puente and Cal Tjader who captured his abilities on albums such as Top Percussion, Cuban Carnival, Cal Tjader’s Latin Concert, and Monterey Concerts.
Santamaria’s career as a solo artist began in the early 1960s, and he brought these varied abilities together into a group that could follow his lead. He often utilized a charanga instrumentation that reflected both a historical connection to Cuba and the trend of tipico performance styles in New York. This type of ensemble also worked well as a dance band, opening many performance opportunities. At the same time, his chosen musicians held extensive experience in the jazz world. Even with the traditional charanga format, Santamaria’s musicians worked well as a Latin Jazz ensemble, improvising extensively. At the Black Hawk, a compilation of two Santamaria albums from his early years as a bandleader – Mighty Mongo and Viva Mongo! – reflects his ability to guide a group through two of his strengths.
The Viva Mongo! material places his band in a Cuban dance setting with room for improvisation. “Las Guajiras” maintains a smoldering groove, gently pushed forward by violins and flute while being lit on fire by Rudy Calzado’s vocals. The Cha Cha Cha “Para Ti” provides room for flautist Rolando Lozano and saxophonist Jose “Chombo” Silva to improvise between coros. Santamaria balances the commercial edge on “Pachanga Twist” with inspired breaks and varied solos. The string players weave melodic lines underneath Calzado’s vocals on the elegant danzon “Dulce Sueno,” connecting strongly to the charanga tradition. The group aims for a dance crowd with “Merengue Changa,” a vocal feature that rides over a standard form and a meringue rhythm. The group plays a strong set, full of rhythmic diversity, that aims directly at the dance floor.
Santamaria focuses more upon a Latin Jazz approach with the Mighty Mongo tracks. “Descarga At The Blackhawk” places the musicians in a thriving jam session, with inspired solos from Lozano, Joao Donato on trombone, Silva, timbalero Cuco Martinez, and Santamaria himself. The group spends its time improvising over swing on “Bluchanga,” providing Silva and bassist Victor Venegas an opportunity to flex their ample straight ahead jazz chops. “All The Things You Are” becomes an up-tempo son montuno, with a playful melodic interpretation and memorable solo from Silva. Joao Dontao shares his soon-to-be standard composition “Sabor,” which includes exhilarating improvisations from Lozano and Donato. Santamaria and his group relish in the jazz setting, proving their multiple identities as improvisors, navigators of complex harmony, and Latin rhythm masters.
In the next couple years, Santamaria’s wide flexibility shifted his career again, driving him towards his career defining sound. While performing in an empty nightclub in 1962, Santamaria let his substitute piano player, a young Herbie Hancock, contribute an original composition, Watermelon Man. The song struck a chord with Santamaria, and his subsequent recording became a massive hit. Santamaria altered his focus to concentrate upon a Latin, jazz, funk, and R n’ B mixture in the hopes of recreating his success. He released a series of albums using that emphasized the funk influence in varying degrees; albums like Mongo at the Village Gate included churning boogaloo while others, such as Afro-Indio, presented full force Latin Funk. He never completely abandoned jazz or traditional dance music, but the search for more hits stole his attention. At the Black Hawk showcases Santamaria’s abilities in diverse contexts before his immersion in Latin Jazz-Funk forever altered his course.
Thanks to Luis Torregrosa suggesting this album as a Latin Jazz Classic that needed revisiting. You’ve got fantastic taste in Latin Jazz, I always look forward to hearing your ideas!