Album of the Week: El Cumbanchero, Mark Weinstein


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El Cumbanchero
Mark Weinstein

Cuba's musical history is vast and it holds a wide number of styles and approaches, but in many cases, Latin Jazz continues to investigate only a small slice of that musical horizon. In the early days of the style, Latin Jazz was built upon dance traditions, a natural fit which served the development of the style well. The use of Cuban dance styles didn't act as a starting point though; it became the path that outlined the careers of most Latin Jazz musicians. The reasoning behind the use of these rhythms is logical—the dance element connects with a wide audience and for many jazz musicians, it delivers a different yet accessible foundation for improvisation. The overlooked creative possibilities in the greater world of Cuban music is staggering though—from Santeria songs to rumba rhythms, there's many opportunities for improvisation. Some Latin Jazz artists have dug deeper into these waters, but those projects are far too rare—when they arise, they should be cherished. Flautist Mark Weinstein teams with pianist and arranger Aruán Ortiz on one of these projects, El Cumbanchero, a deep exploration of the combination between jazz and charanga music.

Charanga Classics With An Improvisatory Edge

Weinstein merges the charanga tradition with jazz ideals by performing through classics arranged with a improvisatory edge by Ortiz. A long and winding string melody flies into the rhythm section's explosive groove on Rafael Hernandez's “El Cumbanchero," charging towards the main theme. Weinstein assertively places the well known melody over the thick string texture, pushed into the forefront by an engaging rhythmic accompaniment. The strings frame the flautist's improvisation with strong and abrupt attacks, while the Weinstein leads the rhythm section through a whirlwind of spontaneous creation. Ortiz introduces a piece of the melody which the string take in several different harmonic directions, until Weinstein enters with the unforgettable melody to Alejandro Gonzales' “La Mulata Rumbera." The clever arrangement sends the ensemble through several colorful variations before an energetic montuno from Ortiz sends Weinstein into a solo full of running lines and melodic exploration. A unison band attack opens into a vamp for percussion solo, where an overdubbed Mauricio Herrera trades beautifully syncopated ideas between congas and timbales. The rhythm section rhythm section places rhythm attacks around short string melodies on Enrique Jorrín's “Doña Olga" before Weinstein moves into the main melody. The ensemble captures the dignified grace of classic danzones with an arrangement that finds the melody traveling between Weinstein, Ortiz, and the string section with a delicate beauty. A montuno from Ortiz introduces the montuno section, where Weinstein skillfully integrates his own voice into the classic Cuban setting. An ascending melody made up of abrupt staccato notes falls into an elegant melody that plays upon the rhythmic character and lush texture of the danzon with sensitive performances from Weinstein and the string section Israel “Cachao" Lopez's “Armoniosos de Amalia.." Bassist Yunior Terry sets up the mambo section with a great tumbao that inspires a furious flight of improvised notes from Weinstein. Ortiz follow with an insightful statement that plays heavily upon tipico phrasing that hints at his prodigious jazz vocabulary while staying firmly set in tradition. Weinstein steadily walks between worlds on these tracks, exploring the possibilities of the charanga around the idea of jazz improvisation.

Emphasizing The Strings

Weinstein applies his gorgeous tone to some beautiful Ortiz arrangements that forego the rhythm section in favor of rich string textures. The string ensemble flirts with subtle dissonances as they engage in a tender call and response with Weinstein's bass flute on Sindo Garay's “Perla Marina." The dramatic rhythmic pauses and textural shifts allow for complex intertwining of melodic phrases and subtle harmonic coloring. Weinstein's bass flute adds a fascinating element to the string sound, allowing for understatement and fine dynamic shading. The deep tone of Terry's bass underlies an engaging introduction with shades of mystery and light on Cesar Portillo de la Luz's “Contigo en la Distancia.." Ortiz's piano outlines structure behind Weinstein's interpretation of the melody while the strings add contrary lines and rhythmic motion. There's a beautiful simplicity to Weinstein's performance here that is both appropriate and touching, blending perfectly with the intricate string parts. These pieces add a distinctly different element to the album that simultaneously calls upon the classical element inherent in the charanga, emphasizes the string section, and displays Ortiz's wonderful writing.

Original Compositions From Ortiz

Ortiz contributes a collection of original compositions to the piece, allowing the group to step outside the tradition slightly, while staying within the theme of the album. A flute melody leads the group through an introduction filled with chromaticism before moving into a more traditional melody on “Danzon de Liz.." The rhythm section keeps the momentum behind Weinstein's solo, which travels through a variety of melodic ideas between sparse interjections from the strings. A quick interlude brings the groups to a whisper behind a tasteful solo from Ortiz that gently pushes the limits of the danzon with edgy harmonic twists. A subtly burning rumba blazes behind a flowing melody and a syncopated bass line on “Aruancó," a piece without strings that leans more on the group's jazz side. Ortiz utilizes the spacious texture and rhythmic syncopation inherent in the piece to build a wonderful solo dripping with creative tension. Weinstein flies into an enthusiastic solo turn, winding through the colorful support provided Ortiz before moving aside for a ferocious conga solo from Herrera. A beautifully executed exchange between Weinstein and cellist Aristides Rivas brings “Av. Pintor Tapiro" to life against the sensitively supportive backdrop of the rhythm section. Weinstein explores the improvisatory possibilities over a danzon rhythm, and once the jumps into the mambo section, Terry moves into the forefront with a strong melodic bass solo. A return to the melody serves as a transition point into an energetic statement from Ortiz before the group sets up a vamp for a powerful timbale solo from Herrera. These original pieces from Ortiz emphasize the jazz edge of the equation, exposing another set of possibilities when combining jazz with danzon.

A Deep Improvisatory Exploration Of Charanga

Weinstein and Ortiz demonstrate the potential behind a blend of charanga music and jazz on El Cumbanchero, showing us the benefits of a deeper improvisatory exploration of Cuban styles. This is not the first time that Weinstein has gone deep into the Cuban music tradition through a jazz perspective; he's made a career from digging deeper into the world of Cuban music. That experience is readily apparent in his performance, as he plays through melodies and improvisations with comfort and a curious spark. Ortiz shines on multiple levels throughout the recordings, showing his skills both as a performer and an arranger. His string arrangements form the heart and soul of the recording; they brilliantly connect with charanga tradition while consistently delivering uniquely creative spins on the style. His playing is smart and informed, showing a broad understanding of Cuban performance approaches with an unwavering sense of personality. Terry and Herrera supply outstanding support throughout the recording, playing with an assertive feel that never overwhelms the group. The string ensemble plays beautifully, navigating Ortiz's complex arrangement while keeping a solid groove. Weinstein and Ortiz explore jazz through a facet of Cuban music that deserves more attention on El Cumbanchero and the results are both stunning and inspiring, proving that digging deeper into this rich cultural tradition is a practice that delivers beautiful music.

Track Listing:

  1. El Cumbanchero (Rafael Hernandez)
  2. La Mulata Rumbera (Alejandro Gonzales)
  3. Doña Olga (Enrique Jorrín)
  4. Aruancó (Aruán Ortiz)
  5. Av. Pintor Tapiro (Aruán Ortiz)
  6. Perla Marina (Sindo Garay)
  7. Armoniosos de Amalia (Israel Lopez)
  8. Danzón de Liz (Aruán Ortiz)
  9. Contigo en la Distancia (Cesar Portillo de la Luz)


Mark Weinstein—concert, alto, and bass flutes; Aruán Ortiz—piano; Yunior Terry—bass; Mauricio Herrera—timbales, conga, guiro; Yusnier Sánchez Bustamente—conga (1, 2, 4); Marc Szammer—violin (3, 7, 8, 9); Elena Rojas Crocker—violin (3, 7, 8, 9); Francisco Salazar—violin (1, 2, 6); Everhard Parades—violin (1, 2, 6); Samuel Marchán—viola; Aristides Rivas—cello (3, 5, 7, 8, 9); Brian Sanders—cello (1, 2, 6)

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This story appears courtesy of The Latin Jazz Corner by Chip Boaz.
Copyright © 2021. All rights reserved.

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