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Azul Oscuro by Sueños Latin-Jazz

The first instrument heard on Azul Oscuro is Steve Hashimoto’s expressive bass introduction, as if it were a guitar and he were leading into a flamenco composition. But no. Hashimoto leads into his own rumba, "Azul Oscuro," which becomes clear when the rhythm section enters, adding flair and excitement to the piece. Once that happens, Heath Chappell’s drums and Joe Rendón’s congas contribute substantially to the rise of sonic temperature, particularly in the double-time sections, which provide a thrilling level of contrast to the song. Little by little, the piece grows as instruments are added and they aren’t quite the instruments that one would expect. First, Michael Levin’s flute lightens the song’s character, lilting and inviting. Then, Joe Sonnefeldt’s steel pans transfer the implied geographical color from Cuba to Trinidad. The solos are bright and rhythmically engaging and finally the tune ends with a chaotic flurry of percussiveness and fiery flute work and steel pan improvisation.

Who would guess that Sueños is a Chicago-based Latin band, led by a Japanese-American who is inspired by the feel of Latin music and magnetizes audiences throughout the metropolitan area with its force?

Hashimoto has developed a passion for Latin music, strangely enough, and has explored its depth and breadth by giving just a glimpse of its complexity by including songs that incorporate calypso, mambo, rumba, cha-cha and bossa nova into a comprehensive overview of Latin music. All but three of the pieces on Azul Oscuro are written by Hashimoto as well.

The three exceptions include Ray Baretto’s "Acid," which involves a surging, irresistible interpretation started by a throbbing bass line and Chappell’s propulsive but controlled drumming, highlighting saxophonist Don Hesler’s fervent shaping of the tune’s mood. Eventually, trumpeter Steve Thomas joins Hesler in another minute of free improvisation before Smith calms things down with his steel pan work, only to have the proceedings charged again by Rendón’s conga workout. Sueños covers the traditional "Enamorado" without much elaboration as it becomes a showcase for Michael Levin as he plays the melody on both flute and clarinet. Based on Paulinho Garcia’s arrangement, "Enamorado" proves the cohesiveness of the group as they reinforce each other for a respectful and understated totality of effect. Though pianist Bob Long remains content to play clavé under Levin through most of the recording, when he breaks into solo, he shows once again the superb musicianship of all of the members of Sueños. The third song not written by Hashimoto is Lennon and McCartney’s "Eleanor Rigby," which undergoes a rousing Latin transformation somewhat akin to the feel of Stevie Wonder’s "Don’t You Worry About A Thing."

Hashimoto’s compositions have an air of familiarity about them, no doubt because he has absorbed Latin music so eagerly and thoroughly. "Tango El Gato’s" introduction recalls Tito Puente’s "Oye Como Va," but the group takes the music in another direction, through impassioned improvisation, even though the vamp remains throughout the track. His "Goya," a tribute to the Spanish painter, incorporates a six-eight, hand-clapping-type rhythm of call and response in which Michael Kent Smith’s acoustic guitar alternates with Levin’s swirling clarinet lines. Or Hasimoto’s "Hiroshi" slows things down for more poignant ballad to which Hesler adds much emotional weight with his rich tenor sound.

Azul Oscuro offers an overview of Latin music from a dedicated practitioner of the genre who keeps Chicagoans attuned to its fun, complexity and excitement.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Sueños Latin-Jazz
  • CD Title: Azul Oscuro
  • Genre: Latin Jazz / Latin Funk
  • Year Released: 2006
  • Record Label: Self Produced
  • Tracks: Azul Oscuro, Enamorado, Just Like Julie, Eleanor Rigby, Tango El Gato, Desire, Hiroshi, Acid, Guajira Mi Mujer, Varrio Grande Vista, Linda Linda, Goya
  • Musicians: Steven Hashimoto (electric bass, vocals), Michael Levin (saxophones, flute, clarinet), Dan Hesler (tenor saxophone); Barry Winograd (baritone saxophone), Steve Thomas (trumpet), Bob Long (piano, Fender Rhodes, synthesizer, accordion), Leandro Lopez-Varady (piano), Kathy Kelly (vibraphone), Michael Kent Smith, Neal Alger (guitar), Diane Delin (violin), Heath Chappell (drums), Joe Sonnefeldt (steel drums), Alejo Poveda, Joe Rendón, Mark Smith (percussion), April Grilly, Aaron Mandalke (vocals)
  • Rating: Three Stars
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