Saturday, 3 April 2010

Critical review - Jazz Latino at Alexis Bistro Ampang, 13 March 2010

Jazz is one of the most ubiquitous and enduring genres of American popular music, and in the views of some cultural critics, America’s only indigenous art form. Whilst jazz began as distinctly American, it has since become internationalised and can now be found in most corners of the world. An example of this notion is Latin jazz, which will be the main focus for this essay. In particular, a discussion will be provided on the history of Latin influences on jazz. A critical analysis will then be applied to selected pieces from a live performance by Jazz Latino, which took place at Alexis Bistro Ampang, Kuala Lumpur, on 13 March 2010. According to the program guide, the band play a ‘high energy blend of salsa, Latin jazz, funk and even some straight-ahead bebop.’ For the purposes of this paper, however, pieces that were more closely aligned with jazz have been chosen for analysis.

Historically, Latin music styles and jazz have shared a common history, with both ‘intersecting, cross-influencing, and at times seeming inseparable, as both have played prominent roles in each other’s development’ (Washburne 2002:410). The idea of a ‘Latin’ jazz was not realised until the mid-1940s when it was determined that a separate label was needed to ‘differentiate Latin-influenced jazz from other jazz styles.’ This was also around the time that musicians began using the term ‘bebop’ to ‘distance themselves from their swing forefathers’ (Washburne 2002:411).

There was also a fusing of bebop and Latin jazz, under the name of ‘Cubop’, which was made famous by Dizzie Gillespie and his Afro-Cubano Drums Suite, which also featured Cuban percussionist Chano Pozo. However, the term ‘Cubop’ proved too limiting and ‘was eventually replaced by the more geographically-inclusive “Latin jazz”’. In fact, it was the band’s performance at Carnegie Hall on 29 September 1947, that marks the birth of Latin jazz’ (Washburne 2002:411).

Whist the collaboration between Gillespie and Pozo was brief due to Pozo’s untimely death, it wrought a profound influence on the style. It is thanks to Pozo that we have the conga drums in jazz ensembles today, and it was Gillespie’s nurturing of young Latin players, and his overall influence, which helped to legitimise and incorporate Latin musical structures and principles into jazz (Washburne 2002:412; Gonzalez 2004b:46). It was in this way that Gillespie became an ambassador for the internationalisation of jazz, even playing in Cuba, and for the last ten years of his life directed The United Nations Big Band (Washburne 2002:412). This is partly why, even today, ‘there is hardly any area of the globe…in which there is not some knowledge and appreciation of jazz’ (Kingman 1990:403).

Musically, the question of the Latin influence on jazz concerns the rhythmic aspects, which have their antecedents in Caribbean dance rhythms, for example, tangos, rumbas, sambas, etc. And given that jazz at this time was connected to dance, for example, lindies and foxtrots, the leap to playing Latin rhythms in jazz was only natural (Kingman 1990:355).

Having provided an outline of the influences on Latin jazz, attention can now be turned to looking at specific musical examples. The band members of Jazz Latino are from various nations further reinforcing the points made above on the ‘internationalisation’ of jazz, and exemplifying Gonzalez’s (2004a:10) statement that Latin jazz ‘is as diverse as the people who create it.’ For example, Eric Li (piano) is from Hong Kong; Marco (vocals, guitar, congas) is from Cuba; and Fly (electric bass) and John Thomas (drums), are both from Malaysia.

On the night of the performance, Jazz Latino take the stage, and after a request to the audience to not speak too loud during the show, they get started with their first piece for the evening, “Once More Once”. Influenced by bebop, this piece demonstrates the virtuoso pedigree of the outfit with each performer given an opportunity for a solo to show off their talented skills (Kingman 1990:385-386). The connection to bebop is perhaps best illustrated in the use of non-sensical vocals (scat singing), which Marco sings for the first vocal solo (Kingman 1990:387). Each solo is clearly improvisational, which according to Kingman, ‘is never a matter of “anything goes”...[i]t is a product…of a fine balance between discipline and freedom’ of which ‘balance is the real essence of jazz performance’ (Kingman 1990:375).

The piece opens with the delicate tinkling keys from Eric, and John Thomas (JT) provides a slow percussive beat with wooden block and cowbell, before picking up his sticks and laying down syncopated rhythms. Marco and Fly on lead and bass guitars, respectively, join in providing further texture to the groove, and the ensemble is in full swing.

The first solo is from Marco and features a hallmark of bebop – scat singing; and sung here, he exhibits the same fluidity and virtuosity to be heard later in the instrumental solos. The second solo is also courtesy of Marco, but here he demonstrates his guitar mastery with his fingers moving in a blur up and down the neck, strumming out faster and faster rhythms. Picking up where Marco left off, Eric’s fingers stab out an intricate piano solo, rising and falling in waves of struck keys, which progresses in a continuous and swirling movement to a high energy peak.

In Fly’s solo, the understated walking bass which has accompanied the ensemble so far, becomes a fast striding experimentation in deft fingerwork and adept skill. Similarly to Marco, his hands fly up and down the neck as he extracts faster and faster rhythms from his instrument, culminating at the top of the solo with Latin flourishes.

Just before Fly finishes his set piece, JT interjects with percussive hits, and by the time Fly reaches crescendo and bows out, he picks up the rhythm in a demonstrative performance of furious stick work, with frenetic cross rhythms and complex syncopation. The sticks disappear from sight with the speed of maniacal hitting with cowbell, snare and hats crashing and booming as JT takes the tempo to a fever pitch, before adroitly settling back into a rolling groove, and the rest of the ensemble join back in to take the piece out.

It was interesting to note Eric’s piano accompaniment during JT’s solo, with staccato attacks interspersed with Latin rhythms. The audience’s appreciation of the piece was sincerely felt with awed applause at the end of each performer’s solo, and rapturous ovation at the end.

Following on from a fast-paced Latin piece, “Stone Flower” is introduced as a slower number. Here we have more scat singing, but rather than allowing the performers individual solo space, the piece is really based around Eric’s piano playing, and an interesting episode in the middle between Eric and Marco, switching between solos in a call and response pattern.

It opens with Eric’s floating piano, and develops shortly with low sustained bass chords, whilst tinkling sounds rain above, and the whole structure circulates with purposeful phrasing. JT gradually introduces shuffling cymbals, simple drumming and percussive fills, which is understated enough to give room to the piano in the overall sound. As mentioned above, Marco joins in with guitar accompaniment, and the piece starts to shape itself around the solos between Marco and Eric. Meanwhile, Fly stays cool on bass, thumbing out a steady rhythm, and Marco now comes in with his ‘scatted’ vocal gymnastics.

In this piece, the piano playing of Eric really takes a dominant role, and it’s his instrument which holds the rest together in a cohesive way. The piece closes in the way it began, with the solo piano repeating similar patterns, but with a direct movement to a final close.

The third piece to be discussed, “Cloudy”, also follows after a highly energised Latin number, and is the slowest piece of the performance. Once again it predominately features Eric’s inimitable virtuosity, and the wistful and dreamy piano sets the tone for the rest of the number. Marco joins in early from the beginning with soft slaps on the congas, and JT supports with the gentlest of percussive accompaniment. Fly provides a simple slow grooving bassline, and later into the piece, Marco complements the piano with a tempered guitar rhythm. Whilst the piece remains delicate overall, the complexity of playing for each instrument increases after each movement, but never rises to the sort of frenetic pace or compulsive vibe of previous pieces. By the end it is clear that this was an exercise in cool, measured and restrained temperament.

In considering the whole set, Jazz Latino put on a superb performance which traversed both spectrums of jazz and Latin, with elements of each in every piece. It is interesting to note that the program guide suggested ‘music to move your body to’, however, the music that was performed was far from danceable due to being either too fast, or in some cases, slow. This perhaps also lends credence to the bebop aspect of the performance, in that bebop deliberately discouraged dancing in its revolt against the big bands (Kingman 1990:385).

From the above it should be quite clear that Jazz Latino are consummate professionals, and this was clearly demonstrated through the sheer proficiency of both individual performance, and ensemble performance as a whole. At times it was as though they drew the same breath and were connected psychically as a single living and vibrating organism.

Gonzalez, F. (2004a) “Editor’s letter: On Latin jazz, looking in and looking out”, Jazziz, 21 (9), p. 10.

Gonzalez, F. (2004b) “What Latin Jazz? Moving Beyond Jazz-with-Congas”, Jazziz, 21 (9), pp. 46-47.

Kingman, D. (1990) American Music: A Panorama (2nd edition). New York: Schirmer Books.

Program Guide for Jazz Latino (accessed 29 March 2010).

Washburne, C. (2002) “Latin Jazz: The Other Jazz”, Current Musicology, Spring 2001-Spring 2002, (71-73), pp. 409-426.

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