Cirio: Live at the Blue Note
Half Note Records
Any improvised music travels through periods of evolution, which always instigates interesting questions; the Latin Jazz world has reached one of those crossroads and must ask – does a Latin Jazz artist need to play Latin rhythms? At first glance, this seems like a ridiculous question. In many ways, Latin rhythms are the defining factor that separates the style from straight-ahead jazz. Yet rhythm does not define an artist, and strong voices may move outside the confines of traditional rhythmic structures. The straight-ahead jazz world discovered this truth when free jazz deconstructed the standard swing foundation and then fusion substituted it with aggressive rock beats. Traditionalists protested for years with cries of sacrilege, yet today, these approaches simply sit as established and unquestioned branches of jazz. Artists from the Caribbean and South America often define their identity through their culture, but today’s musicians are beginning to state that their culture contains more than simply rhythms. An artistic expression that does not use Cuban rhythms can still speak volumes about a life in Cuban culture; it just says something different. Cuban drummer Francisco Mela presents an electric set of music on Cirio: Live at the Blue Note that paints a vivid picture of his life and culture while focusing mainly on modern jazz.
A Strong Relation To Mela’s Life
Several pieces relate to Mela’s life both in Cuba and beyond. Bassist Larry Grenadier establishes a long and winding vamp underneath a variety of improvised textures from the rest of the band on Mela’s tribute to his father “Cirio.” A distinct break in the groove leads to a passionate melody from saxophonist Mark Turner, accompanied freely by the band. Grenadier jumps into an unaccompanied solo that evolves slowly into an aggressive swing feel behind Turner’s improvisation. As the band moves back into the original bass line and melody, there’s a feeling of through composition that gives the piece a beautiful and logical symmetry. The band shrinks to a trio for Mela’s portrait of his mother, “Maria,” while pianist Jason Moran interprets an introspective melody over a swing ballad. Moran utilizes the song’s rich harmony to build rapidly evolving ideas while Mela alters colors and feels behind him. While Mela applies interesting brushwork to the overall texture, Grenadier spins a melodically moving line over the rich harmonic backdrop provided by Moran. Guitarist Lionel Loueke scats a melody against muted notes and a sparse texture to introduce Mela’s dedication to his newborn son “Urick Mela.” As Mela introduces a broken swing rhythm and Loueke moves into full chordal sounds, Turner explores short melodic ideas. There’s a freely roving sense of conversation between Loueke and Turner, who build tension through exchanged rhythmic ideas and longer melodic stretches. These pieces provide insight into the bigger picture of Mela’s life and his identity as an individual.
Implying Latin Music Elements
Three pieces use the power of implication to reference a connection to Latin music. Grenadier provides a swung momentum behind Loueke’s vocals on Cuban composer Silvio Rodriguez’s “Pequeña Serenata de Urna,” turning the trova composition into a smoldering and bluesy ride. Loueke enters into a guitar solo with a soulful intensity that both captures the musical setting and expresses a deep conviction in the song. Mela’s creative arrangement of Rodriguez’s composition says a lot about his perspective on Cuban music and jazz; in many ways the two musics exist compatibility without borders. Loueke and Grenadier build upon a syncopated rhythmic vamp on Loueke’s “Benes,” defying a direct stylistic direction while leaning towards a general Latin ideal. Loueke constructs an attention grabbing statement that combines full, rich chordal sounds and angular melodic ideas that send the rhythm section into a frenzy. After the texture thins, Grenadier and Loueke return to the initial vamp while Mela explodes into a creatively aggressive solo. A free-form improvisation bursts into an assertive vamp from Moran and Grenadier on “Afro Son,” while Turner and Loueke explore a loosely structured melody. Turner wanders into an improvisation that burns with an intensity reminiscent of Pharaoh Sanders. The rhythm section responds enthusiastically throughout Turner’s statement, with Mela pushing a ferocious swing feel through a series of interactive embellishments. While the musical connections are not always obvious, these songs connect Mela’s work to his Latin music roots.
A Modern Jazz Edge
Two more Mela compositions round out the album, revealing a distinctly modern jazz edge. Moran and Grenadier play a jagged series of syncopated chords over Mela’s intense swing on “Tierra and Fuego,” laying the foundation for Turner’s winding melody. Turner dives into a fiery improvisation with intensity and passion, moving through long twisting lines and squelching high notes. Loueke utilizes space, rhythm, and his unique tone to develop a more subtle statement before Mela bursts into a colorful and clearly defined solo. While Mela dances through a swing groove, Grenadier lays down a vamp consisting of strong double stops on “Channel 2″ behind Turner’s subtly interactive melody. Grenadier and Mela display some inventive rhythm section work behind Turner’s improvisation, freely altering textures and pushing Turner to new heights. Grenadier and Turner join into a repeated vamp behind Mela while he smartly constructs variations on the main groove. Mela displays a strong modern jazz voice on these compositions, which draw upon 1960s jazz while maintaining Mela’s unmistakable personality.
A Return To A Challenging Question
Mela challenges us to look at his artistic expressions of life and culture without falling back upon Cuban rhythms on Cirio: Live at the Blue Note, delivering a powerful and thought-provoking statement. His compositions reflect a defined artistic concept and a reflective writing process; his songs are both personal and strong. His performance burns with the fire of a visionary percussionist. He swings with the intensity of Tony Williams, colors the compositions with the palette of Jack DeJohnette, and exerts his personal voice like no one else. Mela has chosen his band members wisely, drawing upon some of the modern jazz scene’s most dynamic figures. The group bubbles with a spontaneous excitement that fuels each song. Mela puts his ultimate trust in the group, letting their freely structured expressions serve as an essential piece of the compositional process. The album resonates with a sense of identity that can’t be denied; every composition and musical choice reflects Mela’s Cuban heritage, his connection to family, and his life experiences. The strength of Mela’s vision makes the music distinctly Cuban without using Cuban rhythms, leaving us once again with our initial question. While the verdict may still be out on the necessity of Latin rhythms in Latin Jazz, on Cirio: Live at the Blue Note, Mela makes a strong argument for the power of the individual as the music’s defining factor.
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