So, where is Latin music going anyway. With Ricky Martin, Marc Anthony and the Latin Invasion along with the re-emergence of Carlos Santana and the "discovery" of the Buena Vista Social Club, everyone has been itching for those great Afro-Cuban rhythms. Even Pottery Barn has a Latin cd where you can hear Celia Cruz and, gasp, Dean Martin? So, the Mambo Craze of the 50’s which brought such performers as Tito Puente, Beny More, and Cachao has been resurrected to a new set of ears, accustomed to drum machines, not the clave, congas, and timbales, and everyone seems to be dancing.
But though the "Latin tinge" may be new to many, the sounds are a tradition which has been passed down from generation to generation, and inasmuch as certain parts of traditions stay the same, traditions grow and alter organically to accommodate a changing artistic environment and technological sophistication.
Upcoming jazz ensemble, AfroMantra, has faced their diverse cultural landscape comprised of rock, funk, classical, jazz, while holding their AfroCuban musical heritage close to their heart. With this they are cultivating a new kind of Latin music that challenges the definition of Latin Jazz, in general. No longer bound by the melodic, "pop" dance sounds of Tito Puente and the Family of the Buena Vista Social Club, AfroMantra has shown in their debut release that the boundaries of Latin music are changing more and more to incorporate the timing of jazz, the arrangements of classical music, with a rhythm that is definitely Latin. Though their style echoes of Coltrane and Rubalcaba and a host of other jazz musicians who have fused together music from across the world, their sound is something different. Utilizing a core group of impressive musicians, AfroMantra is headed somewhere new with Latin Jazz and given the over-exposure of Latin music at present, that is an accomplishment.
These players seem to work well together, neither one trying to outshine the other during choruses and allowing the other take a forefront on solos. Driving forward many of the tunes on the album, Alex Garcia plays the drum set as a melodic device as opposed to merely an accompanist, utilizing different percussive textures and tones to enrich the melodic line set forward by his fellow players. Aryam Vasquez, interestingly enough, plays four congas, as opposed to the traditional two and creates a space for Toshi Someya on bass. Pablo Gil, utilizes the softness of the sax to relay an almost lucid, dream-like feel conducive to the introspective playing of Pablo Vergara. But don’t let all this lead to you to think that the music isn’t hot.
The last track on the album, the Monk tune Evidence, seems best to draw in the new-school Latin-jazz listener with not only a song that sounds "danceable" but one that is recognizable as Monk. The players do an excellent job of upholding the integrity of not only the Latin rhythms that drive this arrangement but the tune itself, keeping the jumping unpredictability of the tune. Though these gentlemen seem to be wanting to pay homage to their respective jazz and Latin roots by leaving the listener with this track, the first time listener might skip all the way to the end of the cd to begin with and then listen to the album in its entirety. Then they might have a better time navigating themselves through the rest of the album.
One of the most dynamic moments in the cd is track 3 "Lejana" which was co-written by piano player-Vergara. In this track you have a seemingly perfect harmony of all these musicians’ talents: the steady undulating of Garcia and Vazquez on percussion and Someya on bass, the singing of Gil on sax and the story-telling voice of Vergara on piano, all working together to create a complete impression of a suspended moment.
What seems so remarkable is the willingness of these players to create as a whole, even when there is an obvious solo section (like Garcia in the beginning of track 9, "Mestizaje" or track 2 "Interconexion").
In short, what Afromantra presents to us here is an open, well-thought out, and complete picture of where Latin Jazz is headed.