I’ll See You in Cuba
Pablo Menéndez & Mezcla
Latin Jazz artists find ways to combine Latin rhythms with all types of jazz approaches; musicians with a connection to rock styles often chose the rocky route of integrating jazz fusion. At one point, this choice would have reflected the music’s vanguard element – in the sixties and seventies, artists like Miles Davis, Weather Report, and Return to Forever experimented with electronics and the integration of rock rhythms. They rode a cutting edge that involved finding new contexts for improvisation and new ways to shape the jazz language. Somewhere along the line, fusion unfortunately lost its jazz edge and strayed more towards instrumental pop music. When the excitement of jazz-rock and the energy of electronic instruments pushed some jazz artists into star status, several artists took a more commercial route and made their music more accessible to a wider audience. The danger of stepping into fusion today is falling too deep into that instrumental pop lineage; Latin Jazz groups that experiment with fusion settings run the risk of becoming Latin Rock groups or instrumental salsa bands. Artists need to find an authentic way to put together Latin rhythms, rock ideals, and electronic instruments with that jazz edge. Throwing those all pieces together provides a jumbled mixture that requires a balance of each different element. Guitarist Pablo Menéndez and his group Mezcla bravely maintain that jazz edge as they travel through fusion ideals on I’ll See You in Cuba.
An Affinity For Fusion
The group displays an affinity for fusion on several tracks, freely mixing contemporary ideas with Cuban rhythms and serious jazz improvisation. Tenor saxophonist Orlando Sánchez improvises feverishly over drummer Ruy Adrián López-Nussa burning uptempo swing on “Big Brecker” until the whole band leaps into a ferociously virtuosic melody over a steaming rumba. Sánchez twists and turns through the racing solo cycle with an edgy tone and a creative soulfulness, paying a fitting tribute to the song’s namesake, legendary sax player Michael Brecker. Trumpet player Máyquel González follows Sánchez’s lead with an angular improvisation that displays creative melodic ingenuity, giving way to bass player Ernesto Hermida winding solo, filled with quick runs. Drummer Oliver Valdés lays down a funky groove complemented by funky fills on “Chucho’s Blues” before the wind players jump into a bluesy melody reminiscent of Irakere. Sánchez tears into an assertive improvisation over a stuttering rhythmic basis, building into a fiery statement from Gonzalez, who winds around the driving groove with a boppish finesse. Menéndez brings an ingrained sense of melodic invention to his statement, followed by a bluesy solo from pianist José Luis Pacheco, until the whole band explodes into a wild collective improvisation. Understated guitar licks drenched in echo wander into a subdued cha cha cha vamp on “Oslo” before Herrera, Menéndez, and Sánchez join together on a lush melodic statement. As the rhythm section shrinks into a sparse setting, Herrera sails through the texture, creating a introspective statement. After a brief interlude, Sánchez moves into an incredibly thin backdrop, building into the rhythm section’s return with an adventurous spirit. Mezcla interprets fusion with a wide birth on these tracks, paying tribute to some of the genre’s great musicians with their own distinct style.
Leaning Closer To Tradition
Menéndez and Mezcla balance stylistic elements with a group of pieces that lean closer to tradition without loosing the group’s unique slant. Menéndez’s catchy guitar vamp establish a distinctive groove that sits squarely between Cuban tradition and a modern world music feel on “Quién Teine Ritmo?” leading into a repeated percussive melody. Flautist Magela Herrera taps into a tipico sound with rhythmic phrasing that fits tightly around the clave, while bassist Ernesto Hermida builds a statement from short understated ideas. Menéndez wraps tasteful melodic ideas and witty quotes into a classy improvisation until the rhythm section opens into explosive solos from conguero Octavio Rodríguez and timbalero Samuel Formell. González and tenor saxophonist Néstor Rodríguez phrase the melody with an embedded sense of jazz swing on “Homenaje A Afro Cuba,” floating over a swirling snare drum rhythm and lush synthesizer patches. As the textures opens into a steady momentum, González thoughtfully improvises through a long series of ideas, pushing the band into a stirring climax. After a driving interlude, the band shrinks into drums and percussion, as Rodríguez displays a strong command over folkloric settings, improvising alone and eventually in conversation with González. Herrera, Rodríguez, and González race into a elegantly traditional melody over a danzon rhythm on “El Médico De Los Pianos,” countered by short melodic snippets from electric piano and distorted guitar. Menéndez finds the perfect contrast to the delicate setting with a raucous guitar tone, spinning lines that balance between rock and jazz. González flies into a wild melodic line on his improvisation, using sequences and quick steps outside the chord changes to building a tense dynamic into López-Nussa’s tasteful solo. The group creates a serious fusion on these tracks, using Afro-Cuban tradition as a starting point while exploring combinations of different ideas
Adding Surprises Into The Mix
Menéndez refuses to be typified throughout the recording, including several songs that play upon convention by adding surprises into the mix. Menéndez’s slicing tone takes command over a laid back blues shuffle on “Chicoy’s Blues,” allowing him to stretch out with defined authority. A sudden break sends the group charging into a double time rock groove, setting the stage for an energetic improvisation from Sánchez. González, Menéndez, and bassist Ernesto Hermida all fly over the driving groove with an aggressive investment, delivering memorable solos. The rhythm section establishes a mix between tin-pan alley and broadway on the Irving Berlin tune “I’ll See You In C.U.B.A.,” integrating a distinctly different flavor into the recording. The lyrics recall a flippant party atmosphere found in Havana during the fifties, foreshadowing the possibility of an over-commercialized post-Castro Cuba. González adds a strong authentic feel to the song with a muted trumpet solo that pulls phrasing directly from the Louis Armstrong book of licks. Menéndez introduces a steady vamp that segues into a bolero behind the classic melody of Thelonious Monk’s “‘Round Midnight,” which inherits a strong dose of drama in this setting. Solos continue over the churning bolero rhythm, with a clean guitar improvisation from Menéndez and a melodic statement from González. The band kicks into high gear with an assertive cha cha cha behind a repeated coro, setting the stage for a wild distorted solo from Menéndez and a fiery series of phrases from González. These tracks integrate some surprising directions into the recording, keeping the album fresh and displaying the group’s creative diversity.
Making A Serious Argument For Latin Jazz Fusion
Menéndez and Mezcla create a fluid statement on I’ll See You in Cuba that cleverly mixes elements of fusion with an unwavering dedication to jazz. Their repertoire mixes a compositional complexity with plenty of room for improvisatory statements, making their music both challenging and interesting. Stylistically, the group travels through many worlds, constantly finding ways to connect Afro-Cuban rhythms to funk, rock, and swing. Sánchez contributes several of the album’s most interesting pieces, revealing an influence from some of the great fusion bands, including the Brecker Brothers and Irakere. Menéndez shows a sensitivity to the group’s sonic landscape, often mixing traditional jazz instruments with electronic sounds, raging from keyboards to guitars. The electronics never overwhelm the mix, in fact they complement each track, adding essential colors into the group. Menéndez’s guitar acts as a major piece of this puzzle, adding a wide range of tonal colors from a reverb covered clean tone to raw distortion. The musicians improvise with a loose fluidity that translates directly to a traditional jazz setting, prioritizing their personal voices over the production of a product. Sánchez, González, and Herrera all emerge as outstanding soloists, placing equal doses of fire, style, and individual expression into their work. Menéndez and Mezcla display high level musicianship throughout I’ll See You in Cuba, producing a compelling collection of music that makes a serious argument for the continued exploration of Latin Jazz fusion.
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