Compile a list of the best Latin jazz piano players and the obvious will appear: Eddie Palmieri, Papo Luca, Hilton Ruiz, Oscar Hernandez, Michel Camilo, Gonzalo Rubalcaba. Not as obvious, but right up there: Paquito Hechavarria.
Any musician or jazz fan who has lived in or passed through Miami during the past 30 years could attest to Hechavarria's prowess. His few recordings over the years further bolster his case. And yet he remains best known for that piano montuno of his on "Conga" by Miami Sound Machine.
Eddie Palmieri, on the other hand, has been recognized as a living legend. A multi-Grammy winner, Palmieri is acknowledged worldwide as the guy who took Latin music one step beyond. He has released scads of recordings, and compositions such as "Azucar para ti," "Puerto Rico," and "Un dia bonito" are just a few examples of his remarkable knack for innovation.
Palmas, Palmieri's latest release, is his first instrumental album in almost 30 years. (Anybody remember his two collaborations with the late vibraphonist Cal Tjader?) Piano, Hechavarria's latest, is his first release as a bandleader.
Both albums provide examples of Latin jazz piano technique at its best. And that's where the similarity ends.
Palmas burns from the first downbeat to the final conga slap. Palmieri has assembled a group of young new-breeds from New York and Puerto Rico, with three horns (sax, trumpet, and trombone) up front all the time and a full rhythm section of keyboards, bass, timbales, congas, bongos, and other drums.
The inferno is ignited by the title tune, a propulsive mozambique featuring solos by trumpeter Brian Lynch, soprano saxophonist Donald Harrison, and trombonist Conrad Henwig, plus solos by Palmieri and conguero Richie Flores. "Slowvisor," a guajira-blues, also lets everyone stretch out, and in fact, the entire CD offers a prime example of what ensemble playing is all about: The driving rhythms push the soloists to new heights -- complete musical interaction, man.
"Bolero dos" begins with one of those ad lib piano-solo intros for which Palmieri has been famous since his Unfinished Masterpiece LP of some years back. From there Palmieri steers his cohorts into a beautiful trombone melody with the rhythm section cohesively comping in the background. Listen closely and you'll hear Palmieri moaning, a trademark of his earlier recordings.
Palmas comes across as a well- planned, -arranged, -recorded, and -executed musical project. Nonetheless, the pegs Latin and jazz remain inseparable here. Jazz buffs who shied away from Palmieri in the past because of the Spanish-language vocals and his salsa image would be wise to pick up on Palmas.
Paquito Hechavarria's Piano is the antithesis of Palmas. It cries out for direction.
Hechavarria's solos are superb, but why, for heaven's sake, aren't there more of them? "Happy," a swinging son montuno, boasts some wonderful piano work by Hechavarria, but there's too little of it. Just when the tune really begins to swing, with multihornman Chris La Barbera screeching away on the trumpet, it fades out.
Saxman Ed Calle's talents could have been better utilized, as well. There's a glimpse of his improvisational talents on "Romance," a Hechavarria composition with a fine impressionistic melody. But, as is the case throughout this CD, other stuff gets in the way. Unnecessary coros, both male and female, guitar twang, and synthesizer drones serve only to destroy the swing created by Hechavarria, multipercussionist Edwin Bonilla, and bassists Eddie "Gua Gua" Rivera and Sal Cuevas.
"Usted abuso" begins with La Barbera playing melody on trombone, then Hechavarria taking over for the bridge. The otherwise fine horn lines are mixed too far in the back. Then La Barbara's 'bone solo gets cut short by a needless coro followed by a taste of Hechavarria's piano (again cut short by coro and guitar).
"Just the Two of Us" and "Light My Fire" provide excellent examples of lame arranging, producing, and mixing. The title tune is featured twice on the CD, with a vocal version starring Rey Ruiz. In this situation, the vocals could have been mixed a little more up front to prevent the piano from overshadowing them. The instrumental version of "Piano" is the same track with the vocal removed and Paquito playing the melody, a better treatment. Cut out the damn synthesizer and ease up on the coro, and it's nearly perfect.
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One can only hope that the powers that be at Hechavarria's label, Sony Discos, will let him do what he does best -- jam out on the piano -- for his next venture.
Maybe the folks at Sony should go back and check out the Cuban-style jam sessions on Hechavarria's collaboration with bassist Israel "Cachao" Lopez on three recently re-released CDs on the Tania label. Recorded in Miami in the mid-Eighties, those display Hechavarria really strutting his stuff.
Eddie Palmieri, with Poncho Sanchez and Mongo Santamaria, performs at 8:00 p.m. Saturday at Gusman Center, 174 E Flagler St; 372-0925. Admission costs $26 and $29.
Paquito Hechavarria performs at 6:00 p.m. Sunday at Ponce Circle Park, between Palermo and Sevilla avenues, Coral Gables; 447-9299. Admission is free.