By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Swenson
There is little in life that can top the excitement and exhilaration of hearing a group of musicians taking off on an impassioned flight of inspired innovation, soaring atop wandering chord progressions, navigating solos and riffs along an uncharted course. In Cuba these jam sessions are called descargas, a Forties creation of legendary bassist/mambo master Israel "Cachao" Lopez. Jesus Alemany's new Cubanismo! and a compilation entitled The Montuno Sessions (featuring Charlie Palmieri, Wayne Gorbea, and others) are definitive testaments to the visceral power and daring musicianship of the descarga.
Alemany, a Cuban trumpeter now based in London, performed and recorded throughout the Eighties with the group Sierra Maestra. On Cubanismo! he's joined by some of Cuba's most respected players, including pianist Alfredo Rodriguez and, from the trailblazing jazz group Irakere, trombonist Carlos Alvarez, flutist Orlando Valle, and percussionist Miguel Aurelio Diaz. The Cubanismo! sessions, recorded last year in Havana with British producer Joe Boyd (Richard Thompson, R.E.M.), yielded some brassy, hard-swinging descargas, built around Rodriguez's angular yet melodic rhythms and punctuated by Alemany's piercing, high-pitched solos. And this isn't the kind of meandering and tepid Latin jazz that forsakes the groove for noodling improv indulgence. Rather, Cubanismo! has been masterfully designed for nonstop dancing, whether it's slow and slinky ("Aprovecha") or hyped-up and furious ("Descarga de Hoy").
The nine cuts on The Montuno Sessions are culled from late-Eighties radio broadcasts on a New York City station -- loose, informal, Saturday-night affairs that attracted the finest touring and/or exiled players from Cuba, Haiti, Puerto Rico, and Venezuela, as well as from the Big Apple. This disc -- released on the British Mr. Bongo label but available in the U.S. through Descarga mail order -- gathers some of the broadcasts' finest moments, including a pair of extended descargas led by the late Charlie Palmieri, older brother of Eddie Palmieri and a brilliant pianist and bandleader.
Elsewhere you'll find thirteen glorious minutes of "Descarga (Around Midnight)" by the Bronx-based outfit Charanson, featuring a terrific workout by pianist Hector Serrano; Orlando and Henry Fiol's "Oriente" and self-explanatory "6/8 Modal Latin Jazz"; and a beautiful vocal turn by Angelo Vaillant on "Que No Muera el Son." And you'd have to look very hard to find a more intense example of the descarga than the Wayne Gorbea All-Stars' "Tumba Palo Cucuye," eight minutes of chanting vocals, wailing trombones, and what might be the greatest tres solo ever recorded. (Descarga, 328 Flatbush Ave., suite 180, Brooklyn, NY 11238)
By John Floyd
Much has been made of Ani DiFranco's canny blend of punk and folk. But the genius of her eighth and most recent release lies in her ability to spike sweetly strummed melodies with punchy, hip-hop beats. Severe syncopation has always been DiFranco's ace in the hole, and with Dilate it bounds gleefully into the foreground. Witness her ballsy seven-minute cover of "Amazing Grace," in which she bends the traditional hymn toward Gothic rap A bells chime in the distance, an old woman recites poetry, and DiFranco keeps her minor-key delivery pitched just above a whisper, allowing a palpitating drum track to propel the tune. Or consider "Outta Me, Onto You," on which she moans and wails and pounds the catgut over a riot of clanging percussion.
Even the ballads ("Adam and Eve," "Done Wrong") are spiced with rhythms that sizzle and swoop. The irresistible "Untouchable Face," which opens the album, jukes along to a military cadence, and "Dilate" uncoils languidly before exploding in a clash of cymbals that matches DiFranco's expletive-laden tirades.
Her pinched voice remains a remarkably versatile tool, capable of plaintive pleas and bitter rants, often within a single phrase. One minute she's all rasp and venom, like Johnette Napolitano; the next she's as fluid and fragile as Suzanne Vega. And as always her lyrics brim with sly rage and naked grief. From the title track: "When I say that you sucked my brain out/The English translation/Is that I am in love with you/And it is not fun."
As her fans already know, DiFranco is a relentlessly confessional songwriter, and practically every second of this slightly overlong 60-minute disc is a direct comment on her emotional state. Ani laments her love for a married man. Ani vents spleen at a one-night stand. Ani probes her melancholy.
She's self-absorbed, sure, but when an album lays down grooves this juicy, it's easy to forgive her navel-gazing indulgences.
DJ Krush doesn't write lyrics, he doesn't rap, and he doesn't even understand English. Nevertheless this renowned Japanese maestro of the turntable creates richly detailed, expansive, mostly instrumental tracks that throb like the greatest hip-hop. Meiso is his third album, but it's being used as a stateside introduction to Mo'Wax, a British label that's fast becoming the premier launch pad for the progressive internationalist beat often called trip-hop. Perhaps to bow to American notions of what is and isn't hip-hop, Meiso includes cameos by some well-known rappers, including C.L. Smooth, Guru, and the Roots. Their contributions sound like afterthoughts, though, and they often get in the way of the music's ebb and flow. No doubt the star of this show is Krush, whose electronic collages shift gently from tempo to tempo while tape loops caress the ear and smooth melodies work around the rhythms. You never know where Krush's innovative grooves will lead you, and considering that Meiso comes from an artist almost completely detached from hip-hop tradition, the possibilities for Krush and trip-hop seem virtually endless.