Jemal Ramirez: African Skies


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One of the hottest Latin-jazz and salsa markets in the country is San Francisco. This may come as a surprise but it isn't. The city's Latin Quarter (now North Beach) has been a music center since the 1930s. The district's Latino history dates back to the 1910s, when, according to The Heart of the Mission: Latino Art and Politics in San Francisco by Cary Cordova, Mexicans settled there after fleeing their country's revolution. During World War II, the Spanish-speaking neighborhood became a magnet for a more diverse Latino population. As a major Naval port, San Francisco had many war plants that operated around the clock. All of them needed workers. Over the years, the district's vibrant club life gave rise to successive generations of Latino, black and white salsa and jazz players.

Jemal Ramirez is a drummer and band director at the University Preparatory Academy in nearby San Jose. He also has a tremendous new album out called African Skies. The album features Ramirez; Warren Wolf on marimba and vibes; Howard Wiley on saxophones; Matthew Clark on piano and Fender Rhodes; and John Shifflett on acoustic bass, with special guest Mike Olmos on trumpet on several tracks.

What I love about Ramirez's drums is how thick and wide-bodied they are without stealing the show. They are ever-present throughout the album but never make the mistake of drowning out everyone else or excessively soloing. Instead, he provides this cohesive hard-bop unit with a thick, Latin-tinged frame that works wonderfully.

The group takes on an interesting range of music, including Freddie Hubbard's Latina, Ramirez's own No Time Left, Michael Brecker's African Skies, John Scofield's Don't Shoot the Messenger and Christian McBride's Youthful Bliss. Tom Harrell's It Always Is, Matt Finders' A Good Time and Wolf, Wiley and Ramirez's A Long Way Home are here too. Two standards were added as well—Speak Low and Save Your Love for Me.

Ramirez lets his crew shine. Clark's piano is absolutely terrific, and the same goes for Wolf on marimba and vibes. This is a perfect album and a must own. Honestly, I could listen to Ramirez play drums all day long.

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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