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Karen Briggs, Karen CD
Irakere, Live at Ronnie Scott's CD
Various Artists, El Jazz Cubano CD

Review: Latin Jazz Perspective

by Alfredo Cruz

This long-awaited debut release by violinist Karen Briggs offers the listener a well rounded exhibition of Ms. Briggs' talent as both a player and composer. Flanked by Miles Davis' "All Blues" (which incidentally is a wonderful arrangement for strings and percussion-only) and "Samba de Orpheus" by Luis Bonfa, the remaining eight tracks on Karen are original compositions and arrangements. The ensemble plays well together and the selections range from old style swing with modern harmonies ("Paisley"), to the acoustic laid-back funk of "Eternal Flame." The beautiful plucking and dynamics that support Karen's solo on "I Wish You Could Stay" are perfectly tempered as they swell from a hush to a roar. Lush harmonies set the scenario for a kind of "highway crusin' groove" that seems appropriate for "Travel Murals." Karen and the ensemble soar on the other selections which offer a good sample of her versatility from soul to funk to samba and Latin. Most impressive of these is the heavily Latin influenced "Canto de Los Gitanos."

With assistance from players like Milcho Leviev (p), Harry Scorzo (v), David Romero (perc.),Bennie Maupin (sax), Nedra Wheeler (b) and others, Ms. Briggs has successfully compiled an impressive collection of musical dreams and ideas. The emphasis here is on acoustic performance and arrangements for a six-piece string section plus rhythm. The CD swings with the discipline required for a direct to two-track recording. A "purist" audiophile recording, the entire session was recorded by David Manley using one large capsule stereo condenser microphone going into the equipment specially designed and built by him. While the quality of the recording is superior, the "live" sound might take some getting used to being that we have become so accustomed to the precision and dynamics of multi-tracking. Karen Briggs is a virtuoso violinist, and what's more, she's one of the most sensitive and swingin'est players around. Karen is an impressive debut release signaling what will hopefully be a prolific future.

There's something about any new Irakere recording that's exciting and fills one with anticipation. Aside from their astoundingly tight ensemble playing and charts, Irakere fuses their music with a mix of elements and styles ranging from a 60s tenor groove to the out and out avant garde. There are also touches of Monk, Diz and bolero classics, all of which are evident in the opening performance of "Neurosis." "Cuando Canta el Corazon" is a beautiful tenor vehicle for tenor saxist Carlos Averhoff. A bit more on the funk side, "Mirando Arriba" features the fierce alto work of Cesar Lopez over the authenticity of a "real" Cuban rhythm section. "Flute Notes" showcases some amazing flute pyrotechnics and "Mr. Bruce" is a piano feature with a gospel feel that falls into a very danceable conga.

The recording concludes with "Claudia," the longtime favorite ballad by pianist/leader Chucho Valdes that has been through several incarnations, returning this time as a gorgeous trumpet and flugelhorn feature. The playing smokes and is inspiring throughout, but most impressive are the charts that make the 4-horn section sound like a big band. Although lacking some of the polished perfection that characterizes their studio work, Live at Ronnie Scott's is an excellent recording that captures the intensity and creative spontaneity of an Irakere performance. Irakere has been setting the jazz pace in Cuba for close to 20 years; this recording gives us a glimpse as to why.

Over the last couple of decades, little has been known about jazz activities in Cuba. There was a time when jazz was regarded with contempt and was a dangerously clandestine activity only to be secretly enjoyed in the recesses of the Cuban underground. For decades very little jazz was getting in or out of Cuba. Fortunately, in the last few years, through increased recording by Cubans abroad, international distribution, and imports we have been able to get a slight sense of what was happening in the jazz scene there. Recently however, there's been a windfall of Cuban music being licensed, imported and domestically distributed here in the U.S. El Jazz Cubano is a compilation of contemporary Cuban jazz that has proven to be a gem of musical inspiration. Every performance here is happening and gives us a good idea of the quality and diversity of jazz in Cuba. The collection includes eight selections by six artists or groups ranging from the solo piano of Chucho Valdes to a modern electric group called Cuarteto Espacio (Space Quartet). Espacio contributes one of the most urgently fierce, hard driving performances of this collection. Their uncompromising and creative use of electronic instruments is direct and to the point, never yielding to their percussive and rhythmic musical roots especially the bass.

All of the selections on El Jazz Cubano are worth mentioning and include the very modern "Perspectiva" by Cuarteto Cubano. Los Amigos' charanga sound of the 90s harkens back to a time reminiscent of the old school with plenty of room for improvisation. Irakere's "Claudia" is a beautiful ballad for brass taken from their Live at Ronnie Scott's release. Young pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba is featured with a trio on an intense and immediately recognizable recording taken from his Blue Note Images release ironically titled "No Name." Rubalcaba also performs the thoughtful and beautiful "Comienzo" with his quartet from his upcoming release Suite 4 y 20. The late pianist Emilio Salvador, to whom the collection is dedicated,was recorded live and does some serious down home Havana cooking on Capullito de Aleli.

All in all, El Jazz Cubano is a truly impressive collection that puts to rest any doubts or hesitation about the quality or versatility of contemporary Cuban jazz.

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