El Mas Alla (Beyond)
Mature Latin Jazz artists understand the importance of simultaneously looking back upon their influences while looking ahead at their own creative voice. Imitation is the most insightful form of study; any mature artist has spent years examining the masters of their genre. This experience shapes a musician’s developmental stage and it leaves them intimately familiar with their influences. Once musicians have fully investigated their influences, they spend years refining their art through numerous performance experiences. In most cases, these experiences demand a creative application of their lessons in fairly different settings. Their original influences never leave them though, they simply inform their creative voice. When the artist presents personal statements, their influences shine through the work, finding an equal balance with personal vision. Percussionist Steven Kroon reflects upon passed influences on El Mas Alla (Beyond) while shaping a strong Latin Jazz statement that includes original compositions and interesting arrangements.
Strong Original Compositions
Kroon contributes four original compositions, written in collaboration with pianists Oscar Hernandez and Igor Atalita. A melody full of sharp rhythmic attacks drives “Bobo’s Blues,” leading into saxophonist Roger Byam’s bebop flavored solo. The percussive nature of Bryan Carrott’s vibraphone statement adds a vibrant attack to his well-constructed melodies, until flautist Craig Rivers contrasts Carrott’s sound with his rich tone and rhythmic ideas. Hernandez winds quick lines through the blues texture, leading into drummer Vince Cherico’s improvisation, full of carefully placed licks. Bassist Ruben Rodriguez plays a funky line that is soon joined by a songo groove on “Matana,” before Rivers and Carrott introduce a subdued melody. After a series of band breaks, Carrott enthusiastically leaps into his improvisation, working off the form’s rhythmic changes and a strong sense of melodic development. Hernandez gradually builds his statement with clever thematic development before jumping into an assertive montuno while Kroon and Cherico trade ideas. Atalita thoughtfully performs an unaccompanied solo before the group jumps into an up-tempo melody on “Steppin.” Rivers and Carrott both match the song’s intensive drive with aggressive solos that emphasize syncopated ideas. Sharp band hits lead into Kroon’s improvisation, where he displays a mastery of traditional ideas and solo construction. A unison band run leads into an intensive 6/8 groove and a rhythmic melody on Kroon tribute to Mongo Santamaria, “Don Ramon.” The band explodes into a driving cha cha cha as soprano saxophonist Steven Wilson and Carrott spin finely crafted lines over the groove. Band breaks send the rhythm section into an intensive 6/8 rhythm section while Kroon builds a powerful statement reminiscent of Santamaria. Kroon and his collaborators craft several solid pieces that demonstrate a distinct link between Kroon and his influences.
Interesting Song Choices With Engaging Arrangements
Kroon includes some interesting song choices that blossom into powerful Latin Jazz tracks through creative arrangements and strong performances. Guest violinist Regina Carter freely introduces the melody on Stevie Wonder’s “Super Woman/Where Were You When I Needed You,” before the rhythm section jumps into a strong son montuno. After a bold melodic statement, Carter creates an energetic statement that recognizes the instrument’s rich tradition in jazz and Latin music. Hernandez provides an authentic arrangement on this piece, capturing the strength of Wonder’s original melody and the drive of Afro-Cuban rhythms. Pianist John Di Martino provides rubato support underneath guest vocalist Freddy Cole’s insightful performance on “I Wish You Love.” The rhythm section adds a bolero, adding momentum to Cole’s performance that speaks volumes with his understated phrasing and deep tone. Carrott follows Cole with an inspired improvisation that sings with thoughtful phrases and a graceful melodicism. An up-tempo guaguanco pulsates beside Rodriguez’s virtuosic solo bass introduction on Jaco Pastorious’ “Used to Be a Cha Cha,” leading into the spacious melody. Rivers attacks his solo with a deep intensity, which fuels Carrott’s energetic statement. After Atalita creates a nice contrast with an open approach, the band drops to just percussion as Kroon explodes into an ear catching percussion showcase. While these songs generally lie outside the Latin Jazz world, Kroon and his band provide authentic foundations and innovative arrangements, giving them a standard Latin Jazz feel.
Looking At Brazilian Influences
Kroon explores another side of his influences with two pieces that include Brazilian rhythms. Kroon, Cherico, and percussionist James Shipp combine to create a full bateria on the introduction to George Duke’s “Brazilian Sugar,” continuing a swaying samba feel behind the catchy melody. Carrott carefully constructs a melodic statement over the samba, building into a rhythmic climax. Byam mixes angular lines and rhythmic attacks into a strong improvisation before the melody leads into another percussion showcase. Atalita and Carrott introduce Joa Donato’s “Minha Saudade” with short melodies, leading into the restrained and elegant melody. The rhythm section creates a comfortable but unobtrusive floor behind Rivers, who imbues his improvisation with a thoughtful serenity that aligns well with the song. Rodriguez displays his gift for melodic creation in his statement, followed by a well-constructed solo from Atalita. These pieces show another side of Kroon’s musical personality, displaying a well-rounded artistry.
Going Full Circle
Kroon and his group pay tribute to some of Latin Jazz finest musicians on El Mas Alla (Beyond) with an engaging recording that both shows influence and personal vision. Shades of Willie Bobo, Mongo Santamaria, and Tito Puente shine through the professionally executed and exciting rhythm section work, reflecting a deep historical connection to the masters. Kroon, Hernandez, and Atalita present strong straight-ahead Latin Jazz compositions that open into fiery descargas. Kroon makes some interesting additional song choices, and the arrangements set the material on fire. Kroon draws upon some of the best musicians in New York’s Latin Jazz scene, including Hernandez, Rodriguez, and Cherico. Their presence, combined with Kroon’s broad knowledge and experience, brings an authenticity and contagious energy to the recording. Kroon’s finely crafted work on El Mas Alla (Beyond) pays tribute to many of the great Latin Jazz percussionists that influenced him and it shows the strong artistic personality that he has built – one that has moved full circle and will undoubtedly influence another generation.
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