CD Reviews: Aguabella - Nuestra Era, and Baker – Gateway to Death Valley

Aguabella - Nuestra Era, and Baker – Gateway to Death Valley
(BCM 110 and BCM 112. CD Review by Andy Boeckstaens)

Francisco Aguabella was a Cuban percussionist who played with legends including Frank Sinatra and Dizzy Gillespie, and led bands around the Los Angeles area for many years. He died in 2010 at the age of 84, but his group continues as a septet under the leadership of saxophonist and flautist Benn Clatworthy.

The two albums reviewed here are available separately but are stylistically similar. The first – Nuestra Era – was recorded just over a year after Aguabella’s death and is dedicated to his memory. It’s exciting stuff, beginning with Kandahar, a Clatworthy composition that has an exotic soprano sax-led line and a rhythmic bustle that evokes the Afghan city.

Continuity with Aguabella’s own combo is provided by the inclusion of three pieces from the original repertoire. Mambo for Puente - the only tune composed by Aguabella himself – is distinguished by great bursts by the ensemble, and linked by a free-ish section from Clatworthy and pianist Bryan Velasco to My Favorite Things. Together with the complex title track by Jules Rowles, they pack a real punch.

The rhythmically repetitive, often-mesmeric Misterioso, by Thelonious Monk, is given a fresh slant. There’s sparkling trumpet from Nolan Shaheed, an interlude for percussion, and a fabulously wild solo by trombonist Joey Sellers that you could still have fun dancing to.

The later CD, Baker – Gateway to Death Valley (the words are displayed on a roadside water tank between Las Vegas and Los Angeles) is, I think, better still. It has the same musicians, except that trumpet duty is taken over by LA stalwart Ron Stout.

Jorge Carbonell and Christian Moraga use drums, congas, timbales and shekere to give a scintillating Latin dimension to material that previously had been presented differently (such as The Boxer, recorded by Clatworthy on “Let’s Face The Music” in 1999). This top team work extremely hard alongside bassist Brian J Wright - who is a rarely-showcased, vital force – and play an important role on La Curandera Negrita (roughly, a black female herb doctor) which has an infectious melody in 6/8 by Sellers and includes a bit of Afro-Cuban chanting.

And there’s more Monk. The cha-cha of Bemsha Swing may be unusual, but it has a truly gorgeous vibe and Clatworthy’s extremely personal tenor tone is at once authoritative, relaxed and vulnerable. The international strand running through the leader’s titles reflect his worldwide experiences and interests. Taxi Terry is a catchy blues written for a London cab driver, and the short Blues for Gaza becomes a brooding, solemn bolero. Spirited exchanges between saxophone, trumpet and trombone on Disaster in Barcelona feed a gutsy set-closer.

Ultimately, though, it’s the well-crafted arrangements – mainly by Clatworthy, with contributions from Francisco Torres and Serge Kasimoff - that make this music so distinctive. Played by a band that’s highly disciplined and probingly inventive, the cracking stuff on both of these albums will appeal to the head, heart and feet.

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