The compliment might make a manager cringe, but Urban Nature never sounds like someone’s vehicle. This is percussionist Sammy Figueroa’s third album as a leader, but here the ensemble playing, and the music, is the story. And a great story it is.
A first-call sideman for artists as diverse as Sonny Rollins (his current employer), Miles Davis and Michel Camilo but also Chaka Khan and Mariah Carey, Figueroa moved to Miami in 2001 and soon after was leading his own band. Early editions included notables such as flutist Dave Valentin and former Cuban supergroup Irakere’s tenorman Carlos Averhoff. And for the past five years he has been able to maintain a steady lineup including trumpeter Alex Pope Norris, saxophonist John Michalak, pianist Silvano Monasterios, bassist Gabriel Vivas and drummer Nomar Negroni. The persistence and hard work are paying off.
The music on Urban Nature, mostly by Monasterios and Vivas, who wrote seven of the nine tracks, is well within the Afro-Caribbean Latin-jazz tradition but never formulaic. Instead, the pieces are smartly constructed and both Monasterios and Vivas, who are from Venezuela, give their music a subtly different flavor. Check Monasterios’ elegant “Zuliana,” a track based on a Venezuelan folk rhythm, or his sly, fast bolero “Queen From the South.”
In fact, the most traditional-sounding track—down to the bright, punchy trumpet solo by Norris and the idiomatic solo by guest pianist Mike Orta (a former member of the group and a longtime Figueroa collaborator)—is “Cuco y Olga,” a tribute to conguero Mongo Santamaría.
Not surprisingly, the group settles with ease on tight but flowing pockets (as in the title track, or “Cha Cha Pa’ Ti,” a fast cha cha cha) and Figueroa anchors and paces the music exactly but discreetly, mindful of the overall sound. There’s an art to leading from behind, and here the proof is in the music.