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When the Latin and Jazz Converge

Published: 2011-06-10
Adam Cruz Perhaps you've heard that Latin jazz has been in a state of uproar recently. Since the announced elimination in April of its category from the Grammy Awards, some of the genre's most prominent artists have united in protest, charging the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, which administers the Grammys, with a cultural affront. (Some 30 other categories also got the ax, but the Native American, Cajun and Hawaiian constituencies have been relatively quiet.)

The outcry came to mind during a performance by the drummer Adam Cruz at the Jazz Standard on Tuesday night. To mark the release of “Milestone" (Sunnyside), his smart debut, Mr. Cruz had reconvened most of the album's personnel: Chris Potter and Miguel Zenón on saxophones, Steve Cardenas on guitar, Edward Simon on piano. (Scott Colley, capably filling in for Ben Street on bass, was playing this music for the first time.)

A tune in the set called “Emjé" had some of the salient features of excellent present-day Latin jazz, including a strong clave pulsing at the heart of the groove; an intricately shifting counterpoint among the ensemble voices; and brilliant, surging solos (notably by Mr. Simon and Mr. Zenón). But the tune—named not after any Spanish term but rather for M. J., a k a Michael Jackson—was an anomaly, and in that sense a good illustration of Mr. Cruz's complicated relationship with Latin jazz, as a genre and a set of expectations.

A native New Yorker now in his early 40s, he comes from an unambiguous Latin-jazz lineage: his father, Ray Cruz, is a timbale player whose credentials include work with Mongo Santamaría. At the beginning of his career, in the 1990s, Adam Cruz worked in a similar vein with Paquito D'Rivera, Charlie Sepulveda and the great Puerto Rican pianist and bandleader Eddie Palmieri (lately one of the most persuasive Grammy complainants).

But in general Mr. Cruz has played more regularly with artists who treat Latin jazz as a point of departure, incorporating Afro-Caribbean and South American rhythms for expressive rather than determinative purposes. One model for this is Chick Corea, who was Mr. Cruz's employer for a handful of years. (No one would categorize Mr. Corea as a Latin jazz artist, but the first item in his discography is a Mongo Santamaría session from 1962.)

Another model is the Panamanian pianist Danilo Pérez, in whose bands Mr. Cruz has worked for more than a decade; Mr. Pérez's album “Providencia" (Mack Avenue) was up for a Grammy this year, not as a Latin-jazz nominee but in the culturally nonspecific category for best jazz album.

“Milestone," almost entirely featuring Mr. Cruz's thoughtful compositions, is a similar creature, informed by several strains of Latin music but just as meaningfully by brisk post-bop and lyrically minded free jazz. Tuesday's first set opened with “Secret Life," built over a straight-eighth groove in 14/8 meter, and during Mr. Potter's athletic solo it sounded a lot like something from one of his own albums. (Mr. Cruz has worked in his band too.) Later there came “Crepuscular," a slow-flowering ballad with a key but no governing tempo, and Thelonious Monk's “Four in One," in proper swinging form.

The vitality of the music, with its unplaceable accent, could be taken as both an argument for the restoration of the Latin Jazz category and a fresh example of its gathering limitations. Mr. Cruz is not alone in this regard, not even on his own bandstand. Search out the latest albums by Mr. Zenón, from Puerto Rico, and Mr. Simon, from Venezuela. (Others include the saxophonist Dávid Sanchez, an early support of Mr. Cruz; the pianist-composer Guillermo Klein; and the drummer Dafnis Prieto, just for starters.)

What does it mean, then, when some of the most artful and ambitious young talent in a genre seems ambivalent about fully inhabiting it? Make no mistake, the Latin jazz category should be restored. But the music being made by Mr. Cruz and many of his peers invites some dialogue about the evolution of the genre, a polyglot hybrid from the start, and the ways its aesthetic has seeped into the modern jazz mainstream.

Mr. Cruz ended his set with “The Gadfly," which featured a rolling cadence, an offbeat saxophone line and a sleek, syncopated vamp for bass and piano. It was Latin jazz, and yet it wasn't, and one of the best things about its climactic final stretch—a powerhouse drum solo over that vamp, and then some comradely sparring by Mr. Potter and Mr. Zenón—was that the distinction felt beside the point, next to the immediacy of the music.

Adam Cruz and Milestone perform on June 21 at Scullers Jazz Club in Boston; scullersjazz.com.


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