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Johnny Almendra y Los Jovenes Del Barrio, "Reconfirmando" CD
Cruz Control, "Cruz Control" CD
Carmen Jiménez, "Carmen Jiménez" CD
Ray Barretto, "Contact" CD

Review: CDs In Review

by Vicki Solá

(RMM 82159 TL-15964.10)

In listening to this impressive follow-up to Evolucionando (RMM 82006, TL-14886), it is evident that what began as a labor of love and a striving to educate and perpetuate remains true to itself. Johnny Almendra and Los Jóvenes del Barrio continue to incorporate the elements of R & B and jazz into charanga, expanding the frontiers and possibilities of the music while retaining the roots and form of the latter. The results are stunning.

This group's roster of fine and experienced players includes Kimson Plaut (composer and arranger of Borincuba, which pays tribute to Puerto Rico and Cuba as "two wings of the same bird"), legendary bass player Victor Venegas, seasoned charanga flautist Karen Joseph, and violinist Sam Bardfeld. Versatile vocalist Jillian is B-A-A-D, equally dynamic and effective in Spanish and in English; check out Hechicera and Compasión. Besides Jillian, the regular vocalists on board are Frank Seguinot and Eddie Natal. This latest production features special invited guests, including renowned violinist Regina Carter and Oriente López, whose flute glides expertly through Cumbiaranga, Memo Acevedo's Colombian tribute. López also authored and arranged one of this CD's most sensational selections, El frio y la obscuridad, which is as lyrically powerful as it's swinging. López also did the same honors on Todo el mundo necesita, which features guest Miles Peña on vocals.

Guest stars Tito Nieves, Ray Sepulveda and trombonist Ozzie Meléndez join Jillian in a playful rendition of Everybody Plays a Fool, with Nieves asking at the end of the number that classic question "Why is everybody always picking on me?"

A highly sought after instructor, leader/percussionist Johnny Almendra has an extensive and impressive discography. He has played and recorded with Hector LaVoe, Willie Colón, Rubén Blades, Celia Cruz, Tito Puente, Dave Valentín, Mongo Santamaría, Isidro Infante, Giovanni Hidalgo, Marco Rizo and classic charangas such as Orquesta Broadway, Charanga '76, Tipica Ideal, Novel and José Fajardo.

Almendra has indisputably put together another winner here. He, Jillian and Los Jóvenes, as their first title suggests, are still evolucionando, keeping the roots intact but soaring to new heights. I urge serious students, lovers of the music, and newcomers alike to explore this latest effort. I eagerly await the next one!

Cruz Control
(Eva Records TL-16315.10)

Timbalero Ray Cruz's album Cruz Control exudes a refreshing sense of raw excitement, combined with the polish and tightness that exist only as a result of a group gigging together with frequency.

The first track, Borinquen la flor, is arranged by Oscar Hernández. It evokes that authentic, heart-swelling sabor of La Isla del Encanto; the vocal intros and phrasings and bomba rhythms heard here recall the world of El sonero major, Ismael Rivera. Veteran Lewis Kahn's violin sparkles on pianist Sergio Rivera's outstanding and infectious (in the very best sense of the word!) arrangement of Sopa de Bacalao. The horns in particular are elegantly arranged in Ralph Irrizary's Matilde. Another Oscar Hernández treatment, in this case Lino Iglesias's Esa mujer, positively swings - a great dance number. Tito Puente's classic number Cuando te vea is included by way of a great and gritty arrangement created by Louie Bauzó.

A total of three pianists are featured on this recording - Sergio Rivera, Igor Atalia and Hector Martignon (formerly of Ray Barretto's New World Spirit). Hector does keyboard honors on his own arrangement of Bolero Medley, a real beauty which features a duet with singers Carlos "El Grande" and Liza Bauzó, Louie's daughter. The very substantial and underrated vocal talent of New York City's Luisito Ayala (not to be confused with Puerto Rican Power's leader) is also very apparent throughout this CD.

Cruz Control closes out this release with Anthropology, a Dizzy Gillespie-Charlie Parker composition, which features Atalia on piano and showcases his versatility. This number is an echo of Cruz Control in its formative stages; it started out during the '70's as a Latin jazz group and has evolved into a salsa band. Its leader, Ray Cruz, got his musical start during the mid '60's with Bobby Cruz and Ricardo Ray, going on to play and record with Mongo Santamaría, Eddie Palmieri and the late Charlie Palmieri.

This CD received instantaneous raves from my listeners, even after I'd only aired a track or two. It's easy to see why Ray Cruz and his band have appeared at the New York City club Bayamo's every Tuesday night since 1992. Cruz Control is an apt appellation - they are undeniably in control while they play as their collective fingers monitor the pulse of the people, who dance as long as Cruz Control plays.

Carmen Jiménez
(Clave Records TL-16647.10)

Some artists have that special spark; some don't. Vocalist Carmen Jiménez definitely possesses the spark, and it has been igniting rave reviews for her, from the Big Apple's Latin Quarter to the Dominican Republic and even as far away as the shores of Hawaii.

The sultry songstress really delivers here on her second CD (her first was Salsa & Romance, 2/3 Clave Records 501, TL-13531). Ms. Jiménez displays finesse as well as a sensuous quality, utilizing both strength and subtlety in her style. The four selections contained on the new disc are no-nonsense straight ahead salsa numbers, with arrangements by Ricky González (also the pianist on this release), Angel Fernández, musical director Nelson Hernández, and Oscar Hernández. Carmen Jiménez has had a long affiliation with the very underrated and superbly talented Nestor Sánchez, who serves as her vocal director and who along with Deborah Resto supports on background vocals.

It's an all too rare pleasure these days to come upon a salsera who has potential staying power. Dedication and perseverance are evident when one takes a look at Ms. Jiménez's accomplishments in other areas of her life. In addition to the B.A. in psychology that she holds, she's also earned two Masters degrees - one in Social Work from Columbia University and another in Public Administration from New York University. Add to this a distinctive talent and charisma and you have an individual who has everything it takes to make it. Just take a listen.

(Blue Note 856974 TL-16314.10)

Ray Barretto told me recently that he wanted Contact! to be thought of more as a jazz album than a Latin jazz album. He remarked "Of all the CD's with New World Spirit this is the most jazz oriented", adding "I think we've accomplished the intent of the CD - which was to get more deeply involved in a discourse in jazz".

Since his childhood and throughout his professional life, Ray Barretto has lived simultaneously and honestly in both Latin music and jazz - his "two worlds", as he dubbed them on My Summertime (Owl/Blue Note 35830, TL-15031), his previous release with New World Spirit. The title of his latest album, Contact!, alludes to the significant individuals, influences, circumstances and opportunities that he encountered in his "two worlds", shaping his aspirations and career since his youth and throughout his professional life.

Whether standards like Ponciana and Caravan or originals, the music contained on this silver disc is in no way compromised, contrived, stereotyped, burdened or imprisoned by forced conformity to any rhythmic format. The jazz on Contact! carries messages, paints pictures and exists dissonantly, independently and harmoniously with born-in-Africa Latin rhythms. Together the musics flourish in keeping with the archetypal marriage visualized by the "architects" of the Machito-Bauzá-Dizzy-Bird-Chano days.

On Moss Code trumpeter/trombonist Michael Phillip Mossman shows his prowess not only as a player but as a composer and arranger. His horn wails with class. Pianist John Di Martino (just as elegant a player as Hector Martignon, who he succeeds in NWS) enters with the Latin phrasings that I love so much, and Adam Kolker's sax winds around them like a dark shade of velvet. Di Martino's piano is soulful on Juan Tizol's Caravan, one of Barretto's favorites. On Kolker's own Point of Contact/Punto de contacto Di Martino's playing is as intense as it is sophisticated, embracing "both worlds". Mossman blows some phenomenal notes which then launch a magical conga solo by Barretto.

La Bendición, written by Barretto, offers a touching tribute to an aspect of the Puerto Rican experience in New York City - that of a child clinging to the widespread custom of offering his mother a blessing prior to every venture outside the apartment door. New World Spirit makes you visualize and feel it.

Listening to Barretto's composition Liberated Spirit produces feelings similar to those evoked by Michel Le Grand's The Summer Knows from the film Summer of '42, another Barretto favorite. Contact! closes out with New World Spirit reveling in some straight ahead jazz with Mossman's treatment of Horace Silver's Sister Sadie.

On Barretto's previous CD he states in the intro to Summertime "I think that the guajira and the blues have a strong common bond. They're both the result of a working people who cut sugar cane in Puerto Rico or who have picked cotton in the South of the United States". With Contact! Ray Barretto has genuinely engineered a synthesis of two branches of the African Diaspora, not only on his terms but on the music's
terms - that is, with both idioms intact, respecting each other, enhancing each other, and allowing each other the infinite ability, opportunity and freedom to create and express fully. That's what jazz is all about.

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