Friday, August 17, 2018
Mike Freeman ZonaVibe's Venetian Blinds
Maybe vibes will become the next big thing in jazz, just like organ trios and big band have been over the last year. I say that because I love the vibraphone. The first jazz music I truly loved came from the Modern Jazz Quartet, and Milt Jackson's mallets were the point of entry. I have a fever, and the only cure is, well...you get it. So my ears prick up when I slap a CD into the player and I immediately hear the vibes (or the marimba, which also gets my attention). If you're an audiophile like me, vibes are one of those instruments that can sound so alive on a real sound system. Like the drums, the vibraphone has a distinct set of tones that emerge with every note--the striking of the mallet on the key, the note itself and the way that note travels out into the room. There's that heady sound of wood in the mix, unique and exotic. It's wonderful.
When I first saw this CD in my mailbox, I thought that Mike Freeman was a vibe player that was so into the sound of his instrument that he legally changed his last name to ZonaVibe. No, it's just Mike Freeman and his group is known as the Mike Freeman ZonaVibe, just like the George Baker Selection. Freeman is considered to be one of the most exciting vibraphone players in contemporary jazz, and he specializes in albums that pay tribute to jazz legends--his last album Blue Tjade was of course a tribute to Cal Tjader. On his new album Venetian Blinds, Freeman pays tribute to Tito Puente and Bobby Hutcherson.
That means, of course, that this album has a Latin flavor and the vibes are right at home. The spirit here is light and fun, something that's in the same ball park as Rolfe Kent's amazing soundtrack for Sideways, and the main theme for Sex and the City--but with a lot more heart and style, at least compared to the latter. The point is, this is music that constantly celebrates life. It should inspire you to dance the night away with its overflow of energy. Freeman's vibes create flurries of seemingly impossible notes, such is his speed. It's not frantic playing, just fluid and lush as it should be. He creates an ocean of sound that creates a natural buoyancy for the other players (bassist Ian Stewart, drummer Joel Mateo, trumpet player Guido Gonzalez and conga player Roberto Quintero). The former two are well-known in the New York Latin jazz scene, while the rhythm section features two up-and-comers. There are, however, no seams showing anywhere in this glorious music machine.
While this is certainly Freeman's show, you might get pulled away once or twice by Quintero. In the liner notes he is referred to as a "conga master," and boy does he have the mad skills. His conga is propulsive and deft--he is Freeman's equal in tempo and spirit. As I said, I'm a huge fan of the vibes but I've actually messed around for a while on the congas (old girlfriend story) and it's easy to be immersed in all the subtle variations in sound that a slap can make. Quintero's conga is an encyclopedia of those sounds, and it's a pleasure to focus in on him and discover what he's doing. Then again, the same thing can be said for Freeman. This is a recording that rewards your concentration, despite its breezy and casual demeanor.