In his Blog Supreme article reflecting upon the past decade in Latin Jazz, Felix Contreras pointed out the diversification of South American and Caribbean influences – a point where I certainly agree. Contreras highlights the impact of saxophonist Miguel Zenón’s latest album and his use of Puerto Rican plena in his compositions. While I might include the use of Afro-Peruvian, Argentinean, and Colombian rhythms as a major trend, I certainly agree with the importance of Puerto Rican culture in the Latin Jazz world. The island has been a major part of Latin Jazz in the United States since the days of mambo big bands, but the contributions often related to more than the rhythms. While some of the music’s prime architects like Mario Bauza, Frank “Machito” Grillo, and Chano Pozo were Cuban, many of the musicians that filled out their bands had a Puerto Rican heritage. Despite this fact, the Palladium’s Big 3 focused their repertoire upon Cuban dance rhythms, making Puerto Rican rhythms like bomba and plena a rarity. In recent years, Puerto Rican rhythms have jumped back into the forefront of the genre’s musical foundation, demonstrating the power of the island’s folkloric music. A number of artistic champions have utilized the music in new and interesting ways, fueling this musical trend.
While Zenón’s new album Esta Plena represents a significant application of the plena in a modern jazz context with outstanding results, it’s important to remember that a long line of musicians carried Puerto Rican rhythms into 21st Century jazz. Rafael Cortijo brought bomba and plena into the forefront of the Latin dance world with his group Cortijo Y Su Combo, bringing a Big 3 aesthetic to Puerto Rico’s rhythms. While Cortijo’s band mostly steered clear of jazz, the iconic bandleader proved the Latin Jazz potential of Puerto Rican rhythms with a bomba fueled jazz fusion classic, the 1974 album Cortijo & His Time Machine. After a successful run as one of the prime minds behind the Puerto Rican salsa band Batacumbele, trombonist Papo Vazquez returned to jazz determined to display his Puerto Rican roots. His subsequent creation of bomba-jazz defined his career, presenting a sound that remains present on his 2008 release Marooned/Aislado. Trombonist William Cepeda came from Puerto Rico’s most well-known family of folkloric musicians, implanting the music firmly in his subconscious. Following a stint with Dizzy Gillespie’s United Nation’s Band, Cepeda formed his own group, Afro-Rican Jazz which brought jazz together with folkloric rhythms. Saxophonist David Sánchez built his career playing Afro-Cuban Jazz on New York’s vibrant scene, but many of his own albums leaned towards Puerto Rican rhythms, referencing his homeland. All these musicians built the foundations of jazz with Puerto Rican rhythms, a tradition that Zenón proudly embraces today.
Many musicians have built the path of Puerto Rican jazz, taking the combination of jazz, bomba, and plena into the modern musical world. Today’s Weekly Latin Jazz Video Fix recognizes the hard work of these musicians with a few clips based around Puerto Rican Jazz. The first video finds Cortijo Y Su Combo performing on an old television show, displaying their dance band approach to the music. The next clip includes a number of important musicians, including Vazquez, pianist Hilton Ruiz, and bassist John Benitez, collaborating on a strong piece of bomba-jazz. The last film finds Zenón with his Esta Plena group, performing one of the elaborate compositions from the latest album. It’s an important approach that is becoming a significantly growing piece of the Latin Jazz world, so check it out – enjoy!
Early Footage Of Cortijo Y Su Combo Performing “Maquinolandera”
All-Star Band From the 4th Borinquen Jazz Festival San Juan Puerto Rico
Miguel Zenón & Esta Plena Performing “Villa Palmeras”
Want to hear more Puerto Rican Jazz? Check out these albums:
Papo Vazquez: Marooned/Aislado
David Sánchez: Melaza
Puerto Rican Folkloric Jazz: Barriles De Bomba
Do you have a video to contribute to satisfy our weekly Latin Jazz video fix? If so, send it in – it’s time to feed our addiction. I’m looking for live performances, from any context. I’ll most likely be posting one video per week, but if you’ve got another idea, let’s talk. So come on Latin Jazz videographers, musicians, and fans – let’s share some of our memorable videos! Get my contact info HERE.
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