Roulette Jazz (1957)
1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die
Between the posts on Ray Barretto and Batacumbele, Latin American jazz is a popular subject right now on the blog. Hope you're not tired of it yet, because here comes another Cuban classic: "Kenya" by Machito. Fortunately for you, this is simultaneously the jazziest and the most rhythm-centered album that we've looked at.
At first, it might be tough to understand what I mean by "rhythm-oriented." It's easy to look at acts like Barretto (who, as a conga player, was the leader and namesake of his band) and Batacumbele (whose sound was based primarily on the bata drum) and think that "Kenya" is hardly rhythm-oriented at all. There aren't the extended solos or elements of flair (with the exception of opener "Wild Jungle") that one would expect from a band that features two conga players, along with bongos and timbales. This album should serve as a reminder that rhythm wasn't created for the spotlight, however.
If there is any fault in this recording, it's that the brass section takes up too much space. The collection of saxophones (including those from guest stars like Cannonball Adderly), along with trumpets and trombones, cavort in fun call-and-response style interplay throughout, but they often create a distraction from the percussion section, which should be the main attraction. The drummers are steady in the background, laying the groundwork for the more glamorous horns.
There are some tracks, such as "Frenzy," where they continue at a blistering pace all the way through, and others like the title track, where they ease off the gas and provide a comfortable rhythm for a perfect mambo. However, no matter the tempo, the group doesn't waste time getting flashy. During "Frenzy," the horns drop out entirely, as if to expose the madness taking place away from the spotlight. The percussion players don't blink however, continuing at the same rapid clip that they had already established.
Just as the drummers are the true behind-the-scenes stars of "Kenya," Frank "Machito" Grillo hardly merits his name on the record. Mario Bauza serves as the music director and primary arranger here, although he doesn't play an instrument with the group. Only one of these tracks is a standard, which makes this album fairly unique within the genre. Grillo's role within the band was to provide vocals and play maracas, but the album is entirely instrumental and his maracas get lost within the cacophony of drums and horns, making his contributions moot.
I know that you've already had several similar groups thrown at you in recent weeks, but I implore you to give Machito (or his band at least) a fair shot. Of the previous Latin American jazz ensembles I've mentioned, this has by far been my favorite entry.
INTERESTING FACT: Grillo claims to have been born in Havana, however someone debunked that theory by providing a birth certificate from Tampa Bay. However, a different official birth certificate was also found in Havana. The case is either a very odd conspiracy, or a very strange coincidence that someone with the same first, last and middle name was born at nearly the same time.
(For a very different, more relaxed version of the group, try "Kenya")