For his second CD as a leader, Puerto Rican conga player Paoli Mejias has decided to take a big step forward with his music, further incorporating the hottest jazz players in New York and firmly welding them to his steaming brand of Afro-Latin percussion sounds that drive this band into a frequent frenzy. Doubled-up alto saxophonists Jaleel Shaw and Miguel Zenon create a fire all their own within similar harmonic timbres, while the bulletproof rhythm section of the outstanding pianist Luis Perdomo, bassist Hans Glawischnig and drummer Antonio Sanchez are perfectly suited to thrust this music to a dizzying, infectious energy level.
Mejias is quite talented as a hand percussionist, but it is his choice of musicians and material written by select composers that firmly displays his strength and sense of purpose as a bandleader. The music really leaps out of the speakers and commands attention, right from the start on the opener "Encomienda" written by Zenon. It's hard to believe any tune could be more full of life, spirit and fire. Coming close is the big band expanded descarga "El Leon," a traditional son montuno bursting with flavor and spice, enhanced by a large vocal coro, lots of extra percussion and a happy sound. Ricardo Pons arranged several of these tracks, and composed "Eshu L'ona," a hip, complex 6/8 chart that is played to strict tolerances. He also did the most Latin-jazz -- emphasis on jazz -- number "Oye Como Suena," which recalls the great original bandleaders in this style such as Arsenio Rodriguez, Tito Puente and Eddie Palmieri. The most modern jazz track "Conflict Of Interests" is a feature for its composer Shaw, a rising star to watch, while a deliberate hot 3/4 during "Egbin'Pa Mi" sets the band ablaze with Perdomo laying out a minimalist but not montuno line, lighting the fuse for the percussionists and Zenon's jovial soprano sax.
A joyous, sturdy and in many ways brilliant effort, this is the coming out party for Mejias as a player and bandleader He's happily following in the footsteps and carrying the torch of those as Mongo Santamaria, Ray Barretto and Miguel "Anga" Diaz who have passed on.