ALBUM OF THE WEEK: JAZZAMBIA, Paoli Mejías
By: Chip Boaz
Most Latin Jazz listeners would agree that drums and percussion sit at the heart of the style; yet, different people could offer several reasons why the drums stay so closely connected to the style. On a surface level, drums add a sense of momentum, excitement, and intensity to Latin Jazz that simply can’t be matched - a fiery conga solo or cajon improvisation sends chills down the iciest spine. The percussionists provide the music’s stylistic structure, guiding the patterns from the rest of the rhythm section, the phrasing of the melodic players, and the idea development for the soloists. The percussionists symbolize the elements that separate Latin Jazz from traditional jazz; when most people think about Latin Jazz, the image of a conga usually pop into their heads. On every level, percussion creates cultural connections to different societies through folkloric and popular dance rhythms. Percussionists can simply play a rumba to connect with Cuba, a samba to imply Brazil, a bomba to conjure Puerto Rico, or a festejo rhythm to refer to Peru. It adds another level of interaction to the jazz improvisations, inserting not only an additional voice into the mix, but a completely individual dialect that can inspire a soloist to reach a new level of rhythmic development. Outstanding percussionists take these elements and make them second nature, exploring new ways to inject the essence of Latin Jazz with an inspired curiosity. A percussionist’s ability to navigate these traditional elements while finding new challenges keep the style moving into the future and maintains a place for the drum at the heart of the genre.
Percussionist Paoli Mejias demonstrates this unique ability on Jazzambia, guiding an exemplary group of jazz musicians through a set that touch upon culture and tradition while exploring new territory.
From Puerto Rican Music
Mejias draws inspiration from Puerto Rican folkloric music forms on several tracks, fueling the music with a strong connection to his native island. Christian Nieves evokes the spirit of Puerto Rican with a short unaccompanied cuatro solo that serves as an introduction to Néstor Toro’s “Jibarology,” leading directly into a twisting melodic duet with alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón. Building upon the basic melody, Zenón develops this initial idea into a screaming frenzy of notes until Nieves lowers the dynamic with a simmering soulful improvisation. The two musicians leap into a unison interlude that winds towards an angular montuno section, unobtrusively cooking beneath Mejias’ explosive bongó solo. A series of assertive band kicks lead directly into a funky bass line on bassist Hans Glawischnig’s “El Tintero,” until a strong bomba rhythm enters behind saxophonist Jaleel Shaw’s understated melody. Pianist Luis Perdomo develops his rich idea with harmonic color and subdued lyricism, followed by Shaw, who tears through the bomba texture with racing flights of modern jazz melodies. A unison band break fades into a percussion feature, making room for Mejias to trade energetic buleador licks with drummer Antonio Sanchez while a coro praises the relationship between Africa and the Puerto Rican bomba. Glawischnig and Perdomo enter with an askew interlocking line that falls into place over a burning plena rhythm on Ricardo Pons’ “Lo Cierto Que Es Lo Incierto,” which wraps an intricate melody through the main groove, swing, and songo sections. After a dramatic unaccompanied conga solo from Mejias, Pons charges into a fiery solo that interjects an intensive energy into bebop melodies until Perdomo winds long lines through a smart solo filled with chromatic development and bluesy embellishments. Several jagged breaks push Perdomo into a furious montuno, providing the foundation for a virtuosic conga solo from Mejias, filled with a powerful momentum. These pieces keep a strong connection to traditional Puerto Rican music while offering optimal space for jazz expression, making a cultural statement rooted in tradition and linked to Mejias’ present.
Compositions Based Upon
Other songs demonstrate a wider range of Mejias’ influences, integrating compositions based upon Afro-Cuban rhythms and more traditional forms of Latin Jazz. Perdomo and Glawischnig establish a catchy vamp over a burning rumba on Robert Rodriguez’s “Fragment,” leading into an understated melody from Zenón that creates a distinct modern jazz contrast. Zenón cuts through the aggressive rhythm with rapid streams of notes and repeated ideas while Perdomo mixes quick scalar runs with bebop-tinged chordal outlines. After briefly revisiting the melody, the rhythm section returns to the original vamp, setting the stage for an explosive conga solo from Mejias that pushes the tempo into a dizzying speed with an impressive showing of skill. Sanchez bursts into a quick 6/8 rhythm while Glawischnig and Perdomo explore polyrhythms, introducing Zenón’s “Diaspora” with a wealth of tension before Zenón enters with a winding dramatic melody. Perdomo takes his time constructing his improvisation through carefully developed lines until the chord disappear behind Zenón, who expressively engages the percussion in an album highlight interplay that grows into a squelching chaos. A slight return to melody segues into an impressive display of percussion mastery from Mejias, who improvises enthusiastically on Djembe over a massive layer of overdubbed percussion instruments. The rhythm section maintains a standard cha cha cha foundation while Glawischnig insert a rhythmically tense bass line on “Sentimental Cha,” leading into a gentle melody and lush harmonies. Perdomo develops a rich statement that logically extends his initial idea into an ear-catching melody, followed by Shaw, who takes a similar approach thoughtfully building upon his improvisatory direction. The group quickly revisits the melody before returning to the original cha cha cha groove, where Mejias draws inspiration from the syncopated bass line and constructs a musically interesting solo. Mejias stays attached to Afro-Cuban forms throughout these pieces, but the consistency of his jazz concept easily connects this group with his overall set.
Mejias demonstrates excellent range, applying his percussion skills and overall musicianship to several pieces that explore interesting compositional techniques by bending the rhythmic ideas. Zenón starts a vamp that travels through a nine-beat cycle on Toro’s “Logos” before moving into a melody tinged with middle eastern colored embellishments while the rhythm section mixes traditional grooves with udu drums and dumbeks. After a dramatic band break, the rhythm section returns with light percussion while Zenón takes his time building his statement, exploring the melodic subtleties of Middle Eastern music before exploding into a furious attack of notes. Perdomo pushes the composition into a Latin direction with a steady montuno as Mejias leaps into an interesting conga solo that balances between the traditional world of Latin Jazz and the song’s ethnic feel. A wave of psychedelic synthesized sounds washes into a freely interpreted rhythmic basis for soprano saxophonist Chris Cheek’s melody on “Seres,” which gains momentum as the rhythm section joins into a unified groove behind the melody’s repetition. Bursts of dissonance transition into Cheek’s improvisation, where he develops a beautifully logical improvisation that reveals a Wayne Shorter influence and heavy dose of musicianship. A sparse groove provides the foundation for Sanchez, who improvises with a colorful freedom that resonates with expression and personality until Mejias turns up the heat with an assertive buleador solo. Perdomo and Mejias freely accent the structure as Glawischnig and Sanchez outline an eleven beat structure on Perdomo’s “Links,” which Shaw delicately navigates with a winding melody. Shaw works a complex lines through a series of band hits before entering a cleverly constructed improvisation that pushes the band into a driving forward motion for Perdomo’s harmonically interesting statement. After a return to the melody, Perdomo magically wraps a disjointed montuno around the clave, inspiring Mejias into a frenzied improvisation filled with smart plays upon the unique setting. Even as he steps outside traditional Latin Jazz settings, Mejias and his group continue to expertly build strong statements upon new and challenging material that explores unusual contexts.
Mejias demonstrates all the necessary artistic contributions of an outstanding percussionist on Jazzambia, but Mejias looks beyond standard expectations and pushes his ensembles in different musical directions. As a leader, Mejias fully accepts the responsibility of inspiring his band mates with a mix of original vision and traditional foundations while allowing them ample space to exert their personal artistic voices. Mejias selects outstanding and challenging compositions that blend traditional Latin Jazz aesthetics with a modern jazz sensibility, allowing the rhythmic basis to define the music while leaving plenty of improvisatory freedom. Many members of the group contribute original compositions, broadening the influx of new ideas and forcing each artist to examine the music in new ways. While Mejias works well as a leader, his performance as a percussionist solidifies the music’s cultural context, drives the ensemble with a powerful momentum, and delivers musical virtuosity through his improvisations. He cleverly inserts layers of percussion without imposing upon the modern jazz setting in each composition; instead he infuses the music with meaningful connections to Puerto Rico, Cuba, and beyond. He surrounds himself with outstanding musicians that feel comfortable pushing back and exploring the outer edges of the music with Mejias. Perdomo and Glawischnig serve as perfect collaborators who use their fluent knowledge of modern jazz and wide range of Latin rhythms to walk the boundaries of tradition and exploration with Mejias. Zenón delivers some particularly expressive improvisations that stand out in the album while Sanchez’s flexible sense of modernity swings hard alongside Mejias’ powerful percussion. There’s an essential set of music on Jazzambia that allows Mejias to deliver an essential message about the power of percussion and its importance in the development of the style.