Bassist Gabriel Espinosa grew up in Merida, capital of the Mexican state of Yucatan. There, on the tip of Mexico's curled base in the early 1960s, Espinosa fell in love with the seductive bossa nova played by traveling Brazilian bands that stopped over in Merida on tour. After emigrating to the U.S., Espinosa attended Central College in Pella, Iowa, and then Berklee College of Music in Boston, where he received a degree in arranging. He went on to earn a masters from the University of North Texas and has been director of Jazz Studies at Central College for the past 13 years. Lucky students.
Espinosa's new CD, From Yucatan to Rio, is fabulous. From its opening track (Antonio Carlos Jobim's Agua de Beber) to Huracan, an original, the album has a skippy Brazilian mood combined with a wonderfully distilled Latin intensity. All of the arrangements are by Espinosa, and the instrumentalists include Claudio Roditi on trumpet and flugelhorn, George Robert on alto sax, Helio Alves on keyboards, and Antonio Sanchez and Adriano Santos on drums. Clarinetist Anat Cohen appears on one track, and vocalist Alison Wedding sings lead on two of her own originals, We've Come Undone and Remain.
The art of this CD rests in Espinosa's arrangements, which keep the rhythm brisk, the horns tight and the melodies suspenseful. In Espinosa's hand, these songs build, level off, regroup and rise again with horn figures and solos interspersed. There also are neatly harmonized background vocals on several tracks that give the album a late '60s Sergio Mendes [pictured] layered sound. Espinosa's writing has a restless, pleading quality that adds enormous horizontal breadth to whatever he scores. There isn't an ounce of filler on the entire CD.
Dig Azul Y Negro, my favorite, which opens in a dark tango and emerges in a major key with gorgeous solos by Roditi [pictured], Robert and Alves. Or Maria, which has a breezy Burt Bacharach-Hal David mid-1960s feel. The combination of Roditi and Robert's interplay supported by the background vocals is positively beautiful. In fact, Espinosa's superb taste in casting for this CD must be applauded. Roditi and Robert play off each other well, with Roditi's roundness gently scraped by Robert's hard reed. What a combination!
There's a passion and clarity on From Yucatan to Rio that's missing from many contemporary albums today. This CD never flattens, no matter how many times I've listened to it, thanks largely to Espinosa's ever-shifting arrangements. The songs sound like familiar friends and new experiences at once. Espinosa is keenly aware that when the day is done, art needs to be consumed and enjoyed by listeners. Success on both fronts.
JazzWax tracks: You'll find Gabriel Espinosa's From Yucatan to Rio as a download at iTunes or Amazon or on CD here. Sample it at iTunes. The more I listen to it, the more I hear in the rhythm and vocals. For more on Espinosa, go here.