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Review: Cal Tjader, Willie Bobo

by Alfredo Cruz

My first impression is - if it makes my one year-old great nephew Ryan smile and dance uncontrollably, it's got to be good. That was his immediate reaction upon hearing Cal Tjader's Soul Sauce for the first time in his young life.

For people like Ry, or myself, who were not around, too young, or simply not yet hip to this music on it's first go-around, the reissue of this 30 year-old Verve classic is an education and an artistic blessing. And for people like Poncho Sanchez, who is perhaps Tjader's most important and dedicated musical descendant, this was a reissue much too long in the process: "Man, I've been waiting ten years for them to put this back out!"

Many recordings, which have been unavailable for years, are now being reissued on compact disc as part of Verve's 50th Anniversary celebration. Recently reissued in conjunction with each other were two landmark recordings, Cal Tjader's Soul Sauce, and a two-fer, Spanish Grease/Uno, Dos, Tres by Willie Bobo. Both represent what are considered by many to be pinnacle recordings by these musicians. Cal's masterful manipulation of the ensemble and the music made this 1964 recording the definitive one of this genre. During this period as well (1965-66), Willie Bobo firmly established the undeniable cultural bond that urban Latinos had, and still have, with mainstream pop and R&B. On these recordings, Bobo and Tjader captured the essence of two distinct musical styles as well as the mood of an era. Both set the ground work for an even more extensive evolution of Latin music into jazz, rock, soul and R&B. Evidence of this is the title, and opening track to Willie's Spanish Grease, the melody surfacing again in the 70's as a big hit for Santana, titled "I Ain't Got Nobody(...that I can depend on").

With pop standards like; "Hurts So Bad," "It's Not Unusual," "Our Day Will Come," "Michelle," "Goin' Out Of My Head," and others, Bobo confronted, head-on, the misconception that Latinos, for whatever aesthetic or cultural reasons, are, or should be, excluded from the pop music domain. Willie spearheaded the "boogaloo" movement of 60s and brought these tunes home to the world by seasoning them with sabor.

A master percussionist and jazz lover, Bobo also always included jazz and original compositions on his records. Check out "Blues in the Closet," "Nessa," "Elation," and Benny Golson's "I Remember Clifford," all included in this reissue. Also worth mentioning is the tasty and classic Bobo composition "Fried Neck Bones and Some Home Fries." This one alone will make even the most skeptical listener a Bobo convert.

While some of the material contained in this reissue has been criticized as being a bit too commercial, one thing is certain, this is quintessential Willie Bobo. Put this one on at a party, and you're guaranteed not to get any complaints.

Another sure bet, and again, capturing the spirit of a generation, is Soul Sauce, an undisputed Latin jazz classic and essential for Cal Tjader fans. This is one recording that jazzers across the ages and the seas all agree on being the one, a genuine work of art capturing the climate of a moment in musical history. Everything seemed to be right for this session, all of the elements necessary to make a great record are here. You can just feel the enthusiasm in the music. The positioning of Donald Byrd, Jimmy Heath, Kenny Burrell, Lonnie Hewitt, Johnny Rae, and Grady Tate, alongside of Willie Bobo, Armando Peraza, and Alberto Valdés, is about as authentic a Latin jazz combination as you can get.

Soul Sauce includes, of course, a spirited and immediately recognizable "Guachi Guaro." Willie does his vocal thing on this one, occasionally dropping in an "Ay Que Rico," "Sabroso," or "that's nice!," - Cal wrote the book with this one. There's also a stellar version of "Afro Blue" featuring great solos by Burrell and Byrd. This combination of mambos, ballads, and standards, is augmented by some swinging originals. Most notably, "Pantano," "Maramoor Mambo," the relentlessly hard-driving "Tanya," and the deceptively smooth starting - but later working into a smoldering groove, "Leyte." This one sounds reminiscent of Clare Fischer's "Morning" at the head, but then takes a harmonic left into more of a bluesy feel before returning to the a.m. groove again at the end. "Joao," a tribute to Bossa Nova giant, Joao Gilberto, closed out the original release, but this reissue includes four previously unheard session outtakes. There's an interesting rough vocal mix of "Guachi Guaro," and a very hip, funky tune called "Monkey Beams" that features the horn ensemble, "Ming," clocking in at 8:39, is the longest tune on this collection and is a nice, very straight ahead composition spotlighting great guitar work by Burrell and extended solos by the rest of the crew. A remake of "Mamblues" closes out the festivities on this recording with a rousing, fast tempo mambo that evokes visions of fleet-footed Palladium dancers.

All in all, these are two very important and worthy Latin jazz historical documents. The packaging includes facsimiles of the original album covers (including original liner notes), as well as reissue notes and technical information. For the serious enthusiast as well as for the novice or aficionado, these two records are compulsory and should be in your collection. Now, after being out of print for many years, thanks to the folks at Verve, we can all enjoy Soul Sauce and Spanish Grease/Uno, Dos, Tres for generations to come.

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