The big band occupies a privileged place in the history of Latin jazz. Only when rock-and-roll changed the musical landscape in the United States did Latin jazz turn, for economic reasons, to small ensembles. (In the 1960s, Mongo Santamaria popularized a "small big band" format, a compromise that is now common in the genre.) Still, several new recordings attest to the continuing fascination with big bands in Latin music.
More important, these efforts -- David Murray Latin Big Band's "Now Is Another Time"; Guillermo Klein's "Los Guachos III," the Either/Orchestra's "Afro-Cubism" and Banda Mantiqueira's "Bixiga" -- are not exercises in nostalgia but fresh takes on an important tradition.
There was no Louis Armstrong's Hot Five or Hot Seven in Latin jazz, setting the tenets of the music. Instead, in the early 1940s, Cuban trumpeter and saxophonist Mario Bauza -- a classically trained musician who had come to the United States playing Cuban popular music and had gone on to become the musical director of Chick Webb's orchestra and a member of Cab Calloway's -- put together his own big band.
Fronted by his brother-in-law, singer Frank "Machito" Grillo, Machito and his Afro-Cubans, directed by Bauza, made its mark playing both Latin dance music and a startling new combination of jazz and Cuban rhythms. It marked the birth of Latin jazz, and the big band became the instrument of choice for arguably the most significant works in Latin jazz -- from the classic recordings of the Tito Puente Orchestra and Machito to arranger Arturo "Chico" O'Farrill's masterpieces and the irresistible "Manteca" of Dizzy Gillespie and Chano Pozo. It's quite a tradition to live up to -- but these new releases, while not quite in such a category, do hold a lot of promise.
David Murray, 48, might be the most recorded saxophonist of his generation, but he remains restless. His work has included anything from standard jazz and gospel to rap and African pop. On "Now Is Another Time," recorded in Havana during visits in 2001 and 2002, Murray is backed by two different orchestras comprising Cuban musicians and anchored, on five of the seven tracks, by three longtime collaborators: Hamiet Bluiett, baritone sax; Craig Harris, trombone; and Hugh Ragin, trumpet.
As a player, Murray has a bruising style. He's the revolutionary as romantic and sophisticated brute. His sound is broad-shouldered (on display in the ballad "Sad Kind of Love"); his playing aggressively, relentlessly in-your-face and punctuated by cries, honks, quick runs and high-register smears. Fittingly, "Now Is Another Time," while a throwback in its classic jazz-over-Cuban rhythms scheme, sounds utterly contemporary not only in its harmonic vocabulary but its urgency and intensity. Tracks such as "Crystal," "Mambo Dominica" or "Aerol's Change" -- all songs are by Murray and reworked by Cuban arrangers -- might suggest at first updates of a more polite era, but not for long. This is tough music for unsentimental times, but rewarding nonetheless.
Argentine pianist, arranger and composer Guillermo Klein is part of a young generation of Latin musicians with a broader, worldlier vision of Latin jazz well beyond Afro-Cuban music. In "Los Guachos III," his references run the gamut from classic big band (a nod to Gil Evans) and clave (the basic underlying pattern in Afro-Cuban music) to Afro-Brazilian music, Argentine folk rhythms, Bach, rock and minimalism, to name just a few. Now, one person's curiosity is another person's lack of focus, and in less talented hands such a broad vocabulary could lead to something insufferably pretentious. But at his best, Klein makes it sound logical, loose and even playful. He's no show-off. Rather, "Los Guachos III" suggests an artist using a jazz approach and aesthetics as tools to explore and remake his world.
"Chucaro" draws from malambo, an Argentine folk rhythm, while "Brazadas" evokes, obliquely, the New Tango of Astor Piazzolla. The repetition and the form of "Espejo" hints at Steve Reich (circa "Music for 18 Musicians") while "Tetris" plays like Bach channeled by King Crimson. But listing the different parts does no justice to the whole. There is a personal sensibility at play here; throughout, the writing is well crafted, detailed and smartly layered but open enough to allow for improvisation. Klein is a talent to watch.
Changing tastes may have killed the working big band long ago, but the 10-piece Either/Orchestra, founded in 1985 and based in Cambridge, Mass., has managed not only to survive but also to create a remarkable body of work. This is a band built on crafty musicianship, eclectic taste and a healthy sense of both tradition and the absurd. It has tackled anything from Duke Ellington and Robert Fripp to Ethiopian pop music with gumption and wit. "Afro-Cubism," Either/Orchestra's eighth release, is a rather sober take (for this group) on Latin jazz, however.
Too often, what others offer as Latin jazz is just mainstream jazz with congas. E/O goes here for something more distinctive and elusive -- the groove on "Harvey's Entrance," the faux-jungle feel in "Blue Attitude" and the reflection-of-a-reflection reading of Ethiopian bandleader Teshome Meteku's Latinized "Yezamed Yebaed." But this doesn't mean that E/O can't groove. Just check George Harrison's "Don't Bother Me." It would be fascinating to have E/O take on Latin jazz while letting its Frank Zappa-Spike Jones instincts loose. These guys know that, in music, respect can only take you so far.
Jazz has long seeped into Brazilian music. Bossa nova, with its cool-jazz leanings, is an obvious example, but the big-band tradition also has been absorbed and reinterpreted, not just by straight-up, American-style ensembles but in the sound of the gafieira (dance hall) orchestra. Still, nothing can quite prepare you for Banda Mantiqueira, a 13-piece band from Sao Paulo. On "Bixiga," the band's third album, reedman and arranger Nailor "Proveta" Azevedo translates the grooves, the swing and the easy charm of Brazilian music into the big-band vocabulary -- and gives big-band convention a dizzying makeover in the process.
A track such as "Tres no Choro" captures the virtuosity, grace and humor in choro (a fleet-footed Brazilian style) while giving it muscle. And so do "Cartola e Cavaquinho," a delightful samba medley, and "Baiao de Lacan," a virtuoso exploration, both in terms of arranging and of playing, of baiao, another Brazilian style. Who could imagine big bands could dance on tiptoes, so fast, so elegantly and with this much swing? Brazilians, obviously.
(To hear free Sound Bites, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8151 for the David Murray Latin Big Band, 8155 for Guillermo Klein, 8153 for Either/Orchestra or 8154 for Banda Mantiqueira.)