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February 01, 2009



By Ben Ratliff


Latin bandleaders these days are making music that becomes simultaneously more modern and more ancient. “Jazzambia,” by the Puerto Rican percussionist Paoli Mejías, is the latest proof. It includes several other like-minded musicians, including the pianist Luis Perdomo and the saxophonist Miguel Zenón, and it’s exciting to see where it goes.


There are standard structural elements of Afro-Cuban music here — tumbaos and montuno sections — but there are also rhythm strategies that come from various kinds of new jazz that many would say are not Latin at all. (One track, “Diaspora,” culminates brilliantly with Mr. Zenón soloing with more free-jazz gusto than he ever seems to use, over the interlocking patterns of two hand drummers.) The point is that jazz was part Latin from the start, and has become only more so. (Available from paolimejias.com.)

A version of this article appeared in print on February 1, 2009

on page AR25 of the New York edition.


Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys

“The Tiffany Transcriptions,” about 10 hours of radio recordings of Bob Wills’s western swing band, have been in and out of print since the 1980s. But they have never been available as a single brick, as they are now from Collector’s Choice. It’s fantastic, and it needs getting. This was a western band, a jazz band, a dance band in general, and as good as its regular studio records could be, they sound compressed and uptight by comparison. When it recorded this rowdy, airy music in 1946 and ’47, the band seemed free and expressive and hungry; solo after solo, laid over driving two-step rhythm, the group exudes poignancy and raw energy — from the steel guitarist Herb Remington, the guitarist Junior Barnard, the electric mandolinist Tiny Moore, and the violinist Joe Holley, among others. The collected Tiffanys show the black-and-white breadth of the band’s repertory: joy-ride instrumentals like “Three Guitar Special” and “Playboy Chimes”; traditional folk songs including “Sally Goodin’ ” and “Red River Valley”; blues standards like “Trouble in Mind” and “Corrine, Corrina”; Kansas City jazz (Basie’s “Jumpin’ at the Woodside,” Bennie Moten’s “South”); Ellingtonia (“Take the ‘A’ Train,” “C-Jam Blues”); Glenn Miller (“Mission to Moscow”); and the perfect western pop songs written for the band by Cindy Walker. There’s a casual optimism all through it, and it’s a music of contrasts: the sharp crack of the drums versus Tommy Duncan’s lazy, macho, pragmatic singing voice.

Ran Blake

The pianist Ran Blake seems to hear other people’s music through a kind of creative séance; in the process it becomes transformed. On “Driftwoods” (Tompkins Square), a new solo piano record, he takes a tightly written old pop song — like “Dancing in the Dark,” “Unforgettable” or “Lost Highway” — and reveals behind it a slow-moving fantasia, full of shuddering harmony played with the sustain pedal down. He puts stops and elongations into each tune, making it move like a sleepwalker until a hard blues phrase wakes it up. He’s been doing this for nearly 50 years, forming his own canon of composers and performers from across the best of midcentury jazz, gospel, soul and classical music, and he’s still in great form.

José Lugo Orchestra

Since the days of the mambo, 50 years ago, there hasn’t been much of a call for new Latin dance orchestras, especially those playing original music. So it’s impressive that José Lugo, a young and resourceful pianist and bandleader from Puerto Rico, has pulled one off, with nine horns and five drummers. “Guasábara” (Norte), his new album, hews more or less to hard salsa, but not entirely; there are short jazz interludes for horns alone, and a sprawling rumba track with three lead singers. In general Mr. Lugo goes in hard for singers, and on some of the album’s tracks he has brought in some of the best vocalists in Latin music, including — amazingly — Gilberto Santa Rosa, Victor Manuelle and Hermán Olivera. It’s a well-sequenced, highly intelligent record. (Available from Descarga.com.)

Mi Ami

“Echonoecho” (Quarterstick), a new 12-inch single by the San Francisco band Mi Ami, is a strange and cool record. It is slow and humid and elegant, with long notes from the bass, reggae and disco drum patterns, a singer (Daniel Martin-McCormick) shouting unintelligibly in a high voice, and echo, lots of echo. Sometimes there’s a trebly guitar — for stretches it becomes frenetic and noisy and fills up the sound picture — but otherwise this is something like a dub-reggae record gone crazy. It’s included on a full album from the band, “Watersports,” coming out in February from Quarterstick, but this is a song that deserves to be heard on vinyl.