Every genre has a standard repertoire – the songs that everyone knows, can play proficiently, and often serve as the basis for some great creative launching points. Many musicians spend a lifetime performing these songs on a regular basis, finding a space for them on every type of gig from the most mundane wedding to freely creative spaces. They must know these songs intimately first; it’s a requirement to jump into any genre’s performance world. The study of each song’s notes and rhythms are a good starting point, building a firm understanding of the melody and the harmony. After building a basic familiarity, musicians need to listen to the song extensively. They need to hear it from every angle and every perspective – study the rhythm section approaches, different arrangement ideas, improvisational techniques, and any standard performance conventions unique to the song. This requires a study of several different versions of the song, and a search for new artists performing it. It’s a major undertaking, but one that will result in a better understanding of the overall song.
“Mambo Inn” exists as one of the few songs that really embody the spirit of the Cubop era. Written in 1952 by Mario Bauza, Bobby Woodlen, and Grace Sampson, the song seamlessly brought together the worlds of bebop harmony and Afro-Cuban rhythm. The harmony draws upon a standard convention of the bebop era, the 32 measure AABA Rhythm Changes form. The composers altered the standard chords, focusing upon the iii-VI-ii-V vamp, but they drew their inspiration from the traditional form. The melody fits strictly into clave, almost outlining the rhythm on its own. Its one of those melodies that you could play without a rhythm section and swing just as hard. The song is generally played over the very danceable son montuno rhythm at an up-tempo pace. There’s a standard introduction that starts the piece, a standard mambo that connects the melody with the solos, and several different improvisational techniques. It’s a classic piece of Cubop history, forever connected with New York Latin Jazz, Machito and His Afro-Cubans, and the heat of the dance floor.
I’ve compiled a list of 10 classic recordings of “Mambo Inn,” organized by the album where you’ll find the track and the artist that recorded it. Each version of this timeless standard presents a different take on the original composition; from different arrangements to unique improvisational voices and rhythm section breaks, you’ll find something interesting and individual in each track. For aspiring Latin Jazz musicians, this list presents an essential study on the road to understanding a major piece of Latin Jazz history. For non-musicians, this list delivers a really good listen with inspired performances from some of the most important musicians in the style. Take a listen to all 10 versions of “Mambo Inn;” you’ll see why this classic composition has inspired so many musicians over the years and you’ll hear how each individual musician has found ways to personalize an important standard.
Machito: The Early Years, Machito & His Afro-Cubans
This compilation of early recordings features the classic Machito & His Afro-Cubans stretching out on several tunes, but the gem of the set is the 13:50 version of “Mambo Inn.” The group starts with the standard introduction, leading into a thick harmonization on the melody. After a swinging mambo, the band charges into high gear with the improvisations, where the bebop influence becomes readily apparent. The group abandons the classic harmony that plays beneath the melody, falling into a one-chord jam with an unstoppable momentum. The loose structure turns the song into an open descarga, which allows soloists to embrace extended statements. Over the course of 12 minutes, two saxophonists, a trumpet player, a flautist, and a piano player express themselves. The rhythm section grooves relentlessly, pushing the soloists to new heights, while the remaining horn players create improvised background lines. In the remaining seconds of the track, the band jumps back into the melody, quickly exploring a very different harmonization. This track really shows the roots of the piece and establishes its use as a fantastic basis for a descarga.
April in Paris, Count Basie and his Orchestra
Machito and Basie were contemporaries, and they shared stylistic elements such as arranging ideas and harmonic movements – this track from the classic 1955 Basie album shows their drastically different performance approaches. The band comes out screaming with big brass introduction worthy of any Afro-Cuban big band; when the melody arises, the differences start appearing. The trumpet’s bluesy inflections on the song’s A section and the wide vibrato from the saxes drastically contrast the sharp distinct sound of Machito’s band. Percussionist Jose Mangual and Ubaldo Nieto push the song forward with authority while drummer Sonny Payne lays back on the beat with a high hat pattern that resides somewhere between straight eighths and swing. With the exception of a few exposed repetitive patterns by Basie on the piano, the band never opens to improvisation. After several variations, the rhythm section bursts into a swing rhythm, allowing the band to thrive in its comfort zone. In the end, Basie reveals his keen musical insights by making these contrasts his strengths – the stylistic differences create a strong tension that charge the recording. Without a doubt, the Basie version of “Mambo Inn” remains a necessary study for any musician mastering the song.
A Moment’s Notice, Hilton Ruiz
Pianist Hilton Ruiz recorded a number of classic standards from the jazz and Latin Jazz world during his all too short career, and this recording displays his intimate knowledge of this important song. Ruiz introduces the song with a unique introduction, based upon a unison riff between the piano and bass. After an abrupt change, the group falls into a classic rendition of the song with Ruiz playing the melody. The drummers shift into a songo as Ruiz and bassist Andy Gonzalez firmly establish a powerful vamp that leads into Ruiz’s solo. The technical virtuosity on Ruiz’s piano work continues to amaze on this piece, but there’s so much more integrated into his performance. Bluesy embellishments, cleverly developed motives, and a thorough knowledge of the harmonic structure make Ruiz’s statement unmissable. The rhythm section pushes Ruiz with a ferocious yet supportive swing, interjecting responsive ideas without being overwhelming. Ruiz disappears after his solo, making space for conguero Daniel Ponce to display his highly advanced rumbero phrases and skill over Endel Dueno’s timbales. Ruiz’s classic arrangement and intensely musical performance make this version of “Mambo Inn” a must-have, especially for aspiring pianists.
Early Rhythms, Johnny Pacheco
Originally recorded in 1981 for Coco Records, this album places flautist Johnny Pacheco in a very different context than his popular Fania releases. The album features the Machito band supporting Pacheco with sizzling arrangements from pianist Rene Hernandez. As a whole, the album pushes Pacheco’s solos in a different direction, but strangely enough, not a single flute note can be found on this version of “Mambo Inn.” After the percussion layers into the song, the band immediately moves into the melody, providing a fairly straight-ahead reading. The horns modulate into a different key through a catchy mambo and series of percussion breaks, setting up the soloists. A saxophonist and a trumpet player trade four bar phrases, but not for long. After two cycles, a timbalero takes a brief but tastefully executed solo; this special guest percussionist is actually Pacheco himself. While this track doesn’t completely enlighten us on Pacheco’s view of “Mambo Inn,” it’s a strong performance, showing another Machito arrangement of the song.
La Familia, Poncho Sanchez
West Coast conguero Poncho Sanchez has made a career from the tasteful interpretation of jazz standards into Latin styles. On one hand, this sounds like commercial faire, but his group’s interpretation of “Mambo Inn” gives us an insight into the appeal of his work. After a quick solo from pianist Charlie Otwell, the band jumps into the familiar melody with precision and energy. The band pushes the song into high gear with a mambo reminiscent of the Machito original, but then move in a different direction. Instead of immediately jumping into solos, the band smoothly moves into the melody of another standard, “On Green Dolphin Street.” Trumpet player Sal Cracciolo and guest saxophonist Gary Foster contribute inspired solos to the recording, blowing over the “On Green Dolphin Street” changes. Otwell enthusiastically provides the original “Mambo Inn” montuno for an album highlight solo by timbalero Ramon Banda before the band jumps back into the “On Green Dolphin Street” melody to close the track. Sanchez’s recording provides some insight into ways to revitalize standards that may have become tired; this witty arrangement provokes great solos from musicians that have probably played these songs many, many times.
Tropicana Nights, Paquito D’Rivera
This finely executed and superbly arranged album attempts to capture the magic and excitement of Havana’s Tropicana club, a goal most definitely achieved by D’Rivera and his group. The band layers in with the classic vamp introduction, leading into a strong version of the melody from the saxes. The trumpets hit percussive attacks behind the melody, eventually taking charge in this powerful arrangement. While most classic arrangements of this song include solos over one chord, D’Rivera chooses to indulge in the beautiful harmony. He takes a two chorus clarinet solo, infusing the track with his classic mix of bebop, blues, and Cuban phrasing. Trumpet player Diego Urcola adds some serious brass attitude with a powerful solo that weaves through a variety of twisting background lines. His tour de force improvisation leads the band back into a top-notch reading of the melody and the original vamp. The arrangement is classic here, the groove is unstoppable, and the improvisations are fiery – this recording is a must-hear for any serious study of this song.
Thru My Eyes, Michel Camilo
Camilo has always displayed a highly personal perspective on Latin Jazz, and he applies that viewpoint onto several standards here, including “Mambo Inn.” The track opens with a seriously funky montuno and intricate winding melodies performed in unison by Camilo, bassist Anthony Jackson, and drummer Horacio “El Negro” Hernandez. The trio takes its time, indulging in the addictive groove before Camilo bursts into the melody. Jackson and Hernandez follow Camilo at every turn, providing syncopated breaks and tightly knit responses. The group falls into a steady forward motion as Camilo flexes his renowned chops over the changes. Camilo’s passion and close familiarity with the song shine through his improvisation, as he spins a seemingly endless array of inspired developments through the song. After an extended solo, Camilo leaps into the original montuno, improvising a bit more before handing the spotlight to Hernandez. The drum solo evolves with Hernandez building upon his original idea into a flurry of virtuosic chops before the trio plays a blindingly difficult unison run. Camilo demonstrates the potential of any standard when applying a strong personal voice to the song; there are several lessons inherent in his performance here.
Dance Mania ’98: Live at Birdland, Tito Puente
This 1998 live recording includes several of the original pieces from its namesake, but it includes a variety of additional selections, such as “Mambo Inn.” Puente’s distinct mark as an arranger shines through from the traditional introduction with the thick wind sound and straight-ahead groove. As the trumpets perform the melody, the saxes play intertwining lines and eventually grab the bridge. The group leaps into the mambo made famous by the Machito band with an enthusiastic vigor before the rhythm section falls into a one-chord vamp for solos. Baritone saxophonist Mitch Frohman utilizes the instrument’s ability to move between flowing melodies and percussive attacks with an extended solo pushed up to another level by rhythmic trumpet lines. Tenor saxophonist Mario Rivera follows Frohman with an aggressive explosion of notes, soon followed by alto saxophonists Pete Yellin and Bobby Porcelli. Once Frohman joins the group, they charge into a full force sax duel. After the brass players move the song up one more notch, all four saxophonists overlap each other until the beautiful chaos of a collective improvisation ensues. Puente’s live interpretation of this classic radiates with energy, and it makes for an essential study, especially for sax players.
Clear of Clouds, Hendrik Muerkens
Harmonica player and vibraphonist Hendrik Meurkens has built a solid reputation upon his performance of Brazilian Jazz, but that’s not the end of his artistic abilities, as he displays on this solid version of “Mambo Inn.” Flautist Mack Goldsbury and pianist Fernando Merlino share a unison line before Meurkens jumps in on vibraphone and plays the melody with Goldsbury. The rhythm section pushes the song at a faster than normal clip, but maintains a fairly straight-ahead approach as the group moves into solos. Merlino zips through a chorus with quick and connected lines, filled with rhythmic flair. Goldsbury attacks his improvisation assertively, combining the fluid motion of his instrument with a bebop intensity. The group brings down the dynamic as Meurkens enters the mix with his cutting harmonica tone. Meurkens files through two choruses, showing the ability to both rapidly move through notes and play expressively. After a return to the original unison line, Merlino falls into a consistent montuno while conguero Topo Gioia and timbalero Rolo Rodriguez trade percussive ideas. Meurkens’ unique instrument places different improvisational ideas into the forefront, making this version an interesting option for study.
Live at the Blue Note, Big 3 Palladium Orchestra
This group brings the next generation of Palladium masters into the lead, continuing the traditions set forth by Machito, Tito Puente, and Tito Rodriguez; it seems only natural that they should include a staple of that era in their repertoire like “Mambo Inn.” As they begin the classic song, it seems like a trip down memory lane with the traditional introduction and a standard reading of the melody. A blaring break between the trumpets and percussion leads the group into the Machito era mambo, which sets up a one chord vamp for the improvisations. Alto saxophonist Bobby Porcelli digs deep into the groove on his improvisation, spinning long bop inflected lines that move through constant variations. A long time veteran of the Latin Jazz scene, Porcelli knows how to turn up the heat on this song, so by the time the brass enters with background lines, his solo explodes into a scorching frenzy. Trombonist Chris Washburne follows Porcelli with an aggressive line that undoubtedly nails his improvisation into the clave. Washburne uses the rhythmic nature of his instrument to push the solo forward slamming through the saxophone background line. In many ways, this arrangement simply revisits the foundation established by the original big 3 orchestras, but the energy and conviction that the musicians bring to the performance is contagious – and it deserves a serious listen.
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