CD REVIEW: Manhattan School of Music Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra / Bobby Sanabria - ¡Que Viva Harlem!

Manhattan School Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra/ Bobby Sanabria (cond.)- ¡Que Viva Harlem!
(Jazzheads JH1207. CD Review by Eric Ford)

This CD is a love letter to Harlem, and to its denizens from the 1920's to 1950's especially, since it - and they - gave birth to Latin Jazz. Among the valuable things about this album (aside from the detail of a great period in Harlem's and music's history) is the opportunity to hear arrangements by Duke Ellington and/or Billy Strayhorn played with a full Afro-Cuban percussion section and modern soloists. A comparison with the originals is a great reminder of just how characterful and exotic the Ellington/Strayhorn writing was. The arrangements have been transcribed and adapted for this orchestra: Moon Over Cuba, Oclupaca, Royal Garden Blues, Blood Count, plus Strayhorn's arrangement of Royal Garden Blues from 1946. The soloists - like the arrangements - interweave ancient and modern.

Since the Manhattan School of Music boasts alumni such as Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, Max Roach, Chris Potter and Miguel Zenon, so the current student crop have quite a standard to aspire to. Suffice to say that this group compares favourably with most big bands on the planet and would out-class most in this Afro-Cuban jazz setting. There's especially great soloing on alto and soprano by Patrick Bartley, plus ear-catching clarinet from Xavier Del Castillo and exuberant baritone sax from the irrepressible Leo Pellegrino. Puerto Rican-born, Grammy-winning drummer/composer/producer/educator Bobby Sanabria is clearly an inspiring leader and the band gets a justifiably ecstatic audience reaction from a home crowd at the John C. Borden Auditorium within the School. The sound quality and mix - with the quieter end of the dynamic spectrum preserved - is excellent.

Since this music was originally conceived for people to dance to, anyone who dances to Cuban music or its derivatives will be able to enjoy dancing to the whole of this CD, including the two (lengthy) originals. The first two tracks are from the library of Machito's Afro-Cubans and if they don't make you smile and want to dance ... well, you might as well book yourself in at the crematorium right now! Surely this stuff is an anti-depressant; someone tell the NHS.

If you like your Latin Jazz to be danceable, big and swaggering, with some Ellingtonian adventures in orchestration and juicy solos along the way, don't hesitate to pick this up. As it says on the sleeve, "Proceeds from the sale of this CD will be donated to the Manhattan School of Music Scholarship Fund," so it's for a worthy cause too.

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