BY BRIAN ZIMMERMAN
From DownBeat Magazine
Afro-Bop Alliance Big Band,Revelation
There’s a grand precedent for Afro-Cuban big band jazz. If the genre had a Hall of Fame, it would be stocked with vivacious, exuberant figures: Machito’s Afro-Cubans, Dizzy Gillespie’s Big Band, Tito Puente. As Afro-Cuban big bands of today aim to extend this genre’s great legacy, their success depends largely on how these ensembles define themselves against existing tropes. The Afro-Bop Alliance Big Band, captained by drummer Joe McCarthy, occupies a singular spot in the timeline of Afro-Cuban ensembles, at once a torchbearer of the genre’s storied history and also one of its fiercest innovators. McCarthy—a Washington, D.C.-based percussionist and vault of Afro-Cuban musical scholarship—conceived his Alliance ensemble as a septet, and over the course of five recordings has gradually expanded the group into a big band. The larger profile hasn’t affected the band’s agility, given how easily McCarthy maneuvered the ensemble into the critical spotlight, winning a Latin Grammy in 2008. For Revelation, the Alliance’s sixth release, McCarthy enlarges the ensemble’s sonic footprint once more, adding four steel-pan drummers. The broad swath of textures only enhances the album’s already vibrant sound collage, which was assembled from compositions by the bandleader and longtime associates Vince Norman (who also contributes lively alto and soprano saxophone) and Luis Hernandez (who supplies a sturdy yet sinuous tenor). In the writing and execution, one hears a refreshing equilibrium between the Latin rhythms of Chano Pozo and Irakere and the harmonic density of modern jazz. This is music that would be equally at home on the beaches of Havana as in the nightclubs of Manhattan. Rattling Cuban rhythms and colorful jazz harmonies are the twin engines that keep this album in motion, and McCarthy and company demonstrate expert control. The meticulously executed “CuBop” and undulating “Magharibi” wear their Afro-Cuban heritage on their sleeve, while others derive vigor from their proximity to other big band traditions. “No Rest For The Bones Of The Dead” courts the anthemic large ensemble sound of the 1970s, and “Dialed In,” with its rumbling percussion and spiky horn arrangements, skirts thrillingly close to Mingus territory. Danceable Afro-Cuban rhythms and cerebral jazz arrangements—that’s a strong alliance, indeed.