Album of the Week: Unity, Bobby Matos Afro-Latin Jazz Ensemble

by chip on May 8, 2009

Bobby Matos Afro-Latin Jazz Ensemble
LifeForceJazz Records

When we discuss Latin Jazz, we too often think about the separate elements of the music; yet unity can be found throughout the Latin Jazz world, both musically and socially. At its most basic level, Latin Jazz takes Caribbean and South American rhythms, and then combines those pieces with jazz harmony and improvisation. Early experiments forced the two musical worlds together and resulted in stiff, clunky statements that leaned more towards novelty than artistry. Once musicians started recognizing the close relationships between the roots of jazz and Latin music, they started seeing a unified whole that could be considered a new style. As the genre moved into today’s modern musical world, musicians examine the elements that unify artistic aesthetics behind jazz and Latin music and consequently, new hybrids and innovations arise frequently. This common background unifies more than simple musical ideas, it also brings people together in new and exciting ways. Musicians from Cuba play alongside Brazilian, Peruvian, and Argentinean musicians, as well as artists from the United States; they may not all speak the same language, but they all find common ground over Latin Jazz. Artists perform Latin Jazz all across the United States – musicians from New York, San Francisco, Miami, and Los Angeles all build their own unique variations upon the genre. Put players from every area in a room together, and they can bond over their common knowledge of Latin Jazz and come together into a cohesive unit. The key to a successful Latin Jazz performance is understanding the unifying factors behind the music – when a group of musicians see these elements, they are unstoppable. Percussionist Bobby Matos and his Afro-Latin Jazz Ensemble find this common ground on Unity, delivering a rich set of original compositions, creative arrangements, and percussion features that reach back to the music’s roots.

Creative Arrangements of Standards
Matos unifies the past and present with creative Latin arrangements of several jazz and salsa classics. Bassist John B. Williams and pianist Theo Saunders set up a beautifully understated groove over a son montuno rhythm on Wayne Shorter’s “Mahjong,” as the wind players twist through the sly melody. The band kicks into high gear as saxophonist Pablo Calogero aggressively tears through the modal texture and trombonist Dan Weinstein infuses strong melodic ideas with angular rhythms. Saunders energetically mixes long jazz lines with percussive ideas into an engaging statement, leading into a restatement of the melody and some collective improvisation from Calogero and Weinstein. The band leaps into a funky bomba as Calogero and Weinstein move to flute and violin for a unique texture on the melody to Ray Rivera’s “Cuchy Frito Man.” Weinstein displays some impressive versatility with a stunning violin solo, spinning rapid melodies and rhythmic attacks around the groove. The band takes some time to relish in the greasy groove around the melody, leaving space between kicks to feature the rhythm section. Calogero sensitively wraps his breathy tenor saxophone tone around the melody on Horace Silver’s classic ballad “Peace” while Weinstein provides supportive harmony notes above a steady bolero rhythm. There’s an effective sense of emotion behind Calogero’s improvisation, as he throws himself into personal melodies that travel through the complete range of his instrument. Saunders follows Calogero’s lead with a thoughtful improvisation that softly winds through the rich chord changes with a gentle creativity. Weinstein pushes Saunder’s churning montuno into an addictive groove with a burning violin guajeo on Tito Rodriguez’s “Oiganlo” as Calogero elegantly states the melody on flute. A series of percussion hits sends Calogero screaming into his improvisation, as he flies over the high-energy groove with an inspired passion. The rhythm section intensifies the montuno as Matos jumps into a timbale solo, attacking the song with an informed and enthusiastic energy that leads to an album highlight performance. Matos provides a smart and modern perspective on several classic tunes with these tracks, bringing together aesthetics of the past and present into a solid concept.

Original Compositions And A Unified Group Sound
Matos and Saunders draw upon their broad knowledge of jazz and Latin rhythms to create several original compositions that brings a unified group sound into the forefront. The rhythm section establishes a driving plena rhythm on Matos’ “Da’ Londons From Da’ Bronx,” while Calogero and Weinstein ride through a catchy minor melody. Weinstein bounces his trombone around the plena’s rhythmic accents, creating an ear-grabbing statement. Calogero creates a contrast with rapid jazz lines that rip through the texture while Saunders frames fragments of the melody around sharp percussive phrasing. Weinstein and Calogero explode into a high-energy melody on the top of Saunders’ “No Down, No Feathers,” creating a strong propulsion over the up-tempo son montuno. Calogero quickly digs into his improvisation with a ‘Trane-like intensity and a biting tone, ripping through the changes with blistering groups of notes. Weinstein creates contrast with short phrases before charging into an aggressive series of ideas that run straight into Saunders’ solo. Williams uses double stops to add some weight to a sparse modal groove on Matos’ “Bronx ‘Trane,” while Weinstein improvises on violin and saxophonist Frank Fontaine states a deeply searching melody. Just as the song starts to build intensity, Saunders changes the pace with a purposely-understated statement that slowly pushes the song towards a higher level. Fontaine recalls the song’s namesake with a raspy, vocal-like tone on his tenor saxophone, racing into lines filled with squelching intensive passion. Saunders boldly places Tyner-esqe suspended chords over a fast cha cha cha rhythm on his “McCoy,” until the wind players nimbly wind through a clever melody. The band maintains a driving momentum as Saunders pays tribute to Tyner with a deeply musical solo, matched by Calogero’s assertive display of Coltrane fueled virtuosity. Weinstein wisely creates a stark contrast with spacious phrasing that rebuilds the momentum into an unstoppable inertia for conguero Robertito Melendez’s energetic and attention grabbing solo. Matos and Saunders play upon the group’s cohesive musical approach here, delivering strong compositions that emphasize the band’s strengths and highlight their personal voices.

A Strong Bond With The Music’s Roots
Matos displays a strong bond with the music’s roots through a series of tracks featuring percussionists playing a variety of Cuban and Puerto Rican rhythms. Many of the tracks integrate some fine drummers from New York’s Latin music scene, including Chembo Corniel on congas and Phoenix Rivera on drum set. The bi-coastal group thrives in this collaborative setting, delving into folklore and beyond with authentic performances and deeply invested improvisations. Melendez joyfully quintos over a driving rumba on “Ritmo Yambu” while Corniel provides a powerful lead voice on requinto during the high-energy “Bomba Sica.” There’s a funky undertone behind “Soul Zambique” as Matos and Melendez take turns improvising and the group digs into a spiritual sensation during “Rimto Bembe” with Corniel speaking through the tumbador. Williams steps into the forefront on “Algo Diferente,” riffing around a chordal bassline while Matos and Melendez keep a driving rumba moving behind him. The short track turns into a feature for Williams, who breaks into a total improvisation, showing both a studied knowledge of phrasing around the clave and a serious set of acoustic bass chops. Corniel, Matos, and Melendez all gather on congas while Rivera keeps a funky beat on “Iyesa Afro Beat,” a witty look at the common African heritage of the music. Guitarist Binky Griptite adds a syncopated single note line while The Mighty Echos provide a repetitive coro, taking this short track into an interesting direction. Matos emphasizes the importance of the music’s roots on these tracks, showing a strong connection to his background with authentic performances.

An Emphasis On Unifying Elements
Matos and his group build upon the common elements of jazz and Latin music on Unity, constructing a solid set of heavy Latin Jazz fueled with passion, knowledge, and artistic integrity. Matos’ years of experience inform his performance at every turn; he consistently plays with taste, style, and commitment. He supportively plays behind his musicians, staying in the background with a solid cascara while they improvise until he explodes into the spotlight. Matos had been around the Latin Jazz world for many years, and he knows the repertoire well. His creative arrangements pay tribute to the original standards that he selects, but they also fit into Cuban and Puerto Rican contexts with a natural ease. Both Matos and Saunders appear as strong composers, with songs that authentically draw upon Latin rhythms, but also follow a jazz tradition stepped in John Coltrane’s influence. Calogero and Weinstein contribute significantly throughout the album, acting as the frontline voices that carry the listener through each idea and melodic statement. Weinstein’s dual ability to move between trombone and violin reflect a refined musical personality; he brings a bold voice equally to both instruments, instilling a diverse sound into the group. The percussion tracks complement the jazz pieces perfectly; it’s consistently apparent that Matos and his band stand firmly upon an honest connection to the music’s roots. There’s several different pieces that inform the exciting music found on Unity, but it always flows as a cohesive unit – due to Matos’ smart band leading and his emphasis of the music’s unifying elements.

Check Out These Related Posts:
Album of the Week: Canción Para Mi Amor, Scott Oakley Y Sus Incomparables
Album of the Week: Perspectiva Fragmentada, The John Santos Quintet
Album of the Week: Áurea, Geoffrey Keezer
Album of the Week: Tambolero, Jose Rizo’s Jazz On The Latin Side All-Stars

Click here to have these posts delivered via email. Or, click here to subscribe to the full text RSS feed and never miss another post!

Theo Saunders May 20, 2009 at 7:27 pm

thank you for your detailed and intelligent review of the Bobby Matos album “Unity”. My only caveat is that you misspelled my name throughout the review. Please note the correct spelling. Thank you!

Con Brio…..Theo (Saunders)

chip May 21, 2009 at 5:39 pm

Theo –

Ouch, sorry about that. The article has been corrected, again, I apologize about my mistake.

Glad that you liked the review, I loved the album. Hope that the review helps spread the word. Thanks for the outstanding music!

Bobby Matos June 1, 2009 at 1:10 pm

Hi Chip,
Thanks for your great review and your glowing words. Two corrections I wanted to let you know about – 1:On “ALGO DIFERENTE” it should read that Williams plays “riffing around a chordal Bassline while Matos and Melendez …..” instead of Matos and Williams.
2: Pablo Calogero does NOT play on “BRONX TRANE”. The tenor sax player there is Frank Fontaine.

Thanks again,


chip June 1, 2009 at 2:35 pm

Bobby -

My apologies on the personnel errors in the review, all has been changed. Sorry about the mistakes, I should have been more careful. Thanks for an outstanding album, loved every bit of it. Keep up the great work!


Comments on this entry are closed.

{ 2 trackbacks }

Previous post:

Next post: