Saturday, January 14, 2017

Zarabande's El Toro on CD

It's not unusual to say that the performance of a particular jazz ensemble might be greater than the sum of its parts, even though jazz is a musical genre that is often defined by the strengths of its solos. But with Zarabande's new CD, El Toro, familiar motifs and arrangements start to break off and meld together in strange and haunting ways. I think it's because of the unusual mix of instruments in this San Antonio-based ensemble--marimba, vibraphone, piano, bass and plenty of percussion. This may not seem unusual considering that Zarabande specializes in Latin Jazz--the opening track, "Ogun," is very grounded to malleted Caribbean rhythms. But as this adventurous quintet works its way through these nine original tracks, those familiar themes seem to melt away and fuse into something that's playful and sinister in nearly equal portions.

Alfred Flores, known as "El Toro," is a marimba and MalletKat master who spearheaded this project (he also produced this album). While these songs are all composed by vibraphone/percussionist Joe Caploe and pianist Mark Little, El Toro is the guiding force exploring the "tandem mallet" approach favored by such legends as Cal Tjader, David Freidman and Dave Samuels. With a skilled rhythm section consisting of bassist Pete Ojeda and drummer Dean Macomber, Zarabande becomes a whirlwind of sticks, mallets and cymbals. So when the motifs drift into what might be called light jazz, the unusual instrumentation steers the mood away from the lighthearted into something darker and edgier.

That's fortunate; a casual listening session can be dismissive, since this can sound like the sort of music you expect to hear on a cruise ship. It's fun, it's lively and you can imagine well-dressed elderly people dancing to it. And then a feeling starts to creep in. Maybe it's the MalletKat, a programmable MIDI "mallet controller" that can sound just like a marimba, a steel drum, or something in between. It's a crystal clear and seems to float ominously above the stage. By the enthusiastic fifth track, "Judah Memphis," you start to feel like the party has left the cruise ship and has moved into a mysterious port and you're about to have a very memorable evening--for better or worse. You might hear a funky bass line that you've definitely heard before, or you might even hear some dreamy '80s style synthesizer that pulls you out of the moment, but you never quite regain your footing.

This is a brilliant recording, which is part of the reason why it can be so unsettling at times. Play just one of these tracks, without context, on a light jazz FM station, and it might blend in. Listen to the entire album straight through late at night, and you'll wake up the next morning with these strange melodies in your head, unfettered.

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