On this earthy and emotionally charged record, Jazzambia (2008), percussionist Paoli Mejias may appear to be showcasing his skills, but in actual fact, he is doing much more than that. He is actually setting out to draw a not-so-tenuous rhythmic line between the music of Africa and of Puerto Rico. In his own very personal vision of Puerto Rico the glue that binds this is European programmatic music and, of course, the African-American idiom of jazz.
This is established right in the first track, “Diaspora,” which opens in a purely derivative Latin American context. Then as soon as he solos, the music breaks down into a richly crafted narrative meandering from African roots, through a fine European sensibility. Finally the music flows back into the Latin American metaphor, before a re-statement of the theme, but this time more robust and melodic, yet featuring a resolution of the African and the Latin American. Miguel Zenon states the European in an alto saxophone tone; Mejias rediscovers the African roots and then the wonderfully sensitive piano meandering of Luis Perdomo brings the song home to Puerto Pico in smart rhythm. And this is very much the case, only more traditional, on Nestor Toro’s track “Jibarology,” which features the electrifyingly colored cuatro work of Christian Nieves.
However there is much more to this record than the first two extraordinary tracks and Mejias takes the listener through them with a wonderful array of percussion from the African and the Brazilian to the Puerto Rican and also the American.
There is the beautiful ’singing’ track, “Logos” and the oblique tribute to he bebop masters - “Fragment,” which features a rising star, Jaleel Shaw on one of the most lyrical alto saxophone excursions imaginable. Shaw returns to wax lyrical on “Sentimental Cha,” a swinging cha cha shuffle. And then there is the dynamic attack throughout, of Luis Perdomo, a direct musical descendent of the great Eddie Palmieri. Perdomo - true to his penchant for a percussive Latin attack creates an enormous swathe of rhythm around the melodic elements of his Latin signature and defines the musical thrust of the record.
And there are also some fine challenging rhythmic excursions where the musicians employ complex time signatures. Bassist Glawischnig’s “El Tintero” is a classic case in point, where this very mode can be seen in the energetic introduction of the song and then throughout the song.
Mejias also states in his dedication that he wanted to pay tribute to the powerful ancestors in his musical family. And if his intention was to praise the griot tradition, which he was born into then this record, with its rhythmic heart that beats around a rich tapestry of melodic and harmonic journeys, then Mejias has truly succeeded in creating a magnificent testament to his heritage.