Afro Blue Monk

The Forthcoming CD by Chembo Corniel Quintet

The respect for the past is evident. The excitement of the present is clear. The hope for the future is bright as Chembo Corniel’s Quintet provides a scintillating and romantic musical experience with his forthcoming release.

“Afro Blue Monk” is the fourth CD release from the Chembo Corniel Quintet “Grupo Chaworo”and features Special Guests Jimmy Owens (2012 National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master Award) on trumpet, lyricist and vocalist Ileana SantamarÍa (daughter of “Afro Blue” composer Mongo SantamarÍa) and Elio Villafranca on piano and serving as musical co-producer. The release date is September 11, 2012.

Wilson “Chembo” Corniel states that his purpose on the release was to pay homage to two of the great authors of modern jazz and Latin jazz, Thelonious Monk and Mongo SantamarÍa. He and his fellow musicians succeed convincingly.

The album begins brilliantly with a composition by Elio Villafranca entitled “Emiliano.” The introduction opens with a solo piano which is quickly joined by Chembo Corniel’s percussion and soon after by Ivan Renta on sax. The intricate piano and sax trades and combos are tight and energetic, if not energizing.

Villafranca has written a classic jazz piece where Chembo Corniel has underscored the intricacy with robust rhythms and energy. Chembo is the percussionist par excellence who has performed with the director of the conservatory where he studied-- the great Chucho Valdes--and with the legendary Machito, the superb Bob Baldwin, Blood, Sweat &Tears, the iconic Tito Puente, and with the astounding Bobby Sanabria Big Band. In other words, you can imagine how gifted he must be if the great percussionists and band leaders all want him in their bands. His 2009 CD “Things I Wanted to Do” received a Grammy nomination for “Best Latin Jazz Album.”

From this very first piece on the album, the band members light it up. Ivan Renta (sax) and Elio Villafranca (piano) seize attention immediately alongside Chembo on percussion and Vince Cherico on drums. Listen carefully, however, to the driven bass of Carlo DeRosa and a new delight appears. DeRosa moves beyond the rhythm section to become a grand support for the melody in so many places, especially during the third song.

Indeed, the hook was firmly set before the conclusion of the very first track on the album.

The second track opens with percussion but the theme quickly emerges and the listener immediately recognizes the familiar strains of “Afro Blue.” This is the monumental classic from the pen and heart of Mongo SantamarÍa.

Born Ramón SantamarÍa RodrÍquez in 1917 Havana, Cuba, “Mongo” became the greatest “conguero” of the 20th century. A band leader who employed such future jazz luminaries as Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock, SantamarÍa was continually in search of the sound to link Afro-Cuban rhythms and African-American jazz. Herbie Hancock’s composition “Watermelon Man” was exactly what Mongo was hoping to find. Herbie played the song straight-up and Mongo layered the Afro-Cuban rhythms on top. Mongo immediately knew that he had a hit on his hands. He asked Herbie’s permission to record it and the result was a 1963 top of the charts hit; his only one. That recording, however, was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1998.

In 2002, the year before he died, Mongo asked his daughter Ileana SantamarÍa to compose lyrics for “Afro Blue” which she did. The original instrumental version was recorded in 1959 and has become a jazz standard. Recorded first by Cal Tjader in 1959 then by John Coltrane in 1963, it has been recorded by musicians from Rahsaan Roland Kirk to Gov’t Mule, John McLaughlin, Andy Summers, McCoy Tyner and, very recently, by Robert Glasper on his brilliant album “Black Radio.” Coltrane’s popular version had switched to a 3/4 swing time and other musicians have tinkered with the time, as well. Chembo’s quintet, however, restores the original time signature of the SantamarÍa composition.

On “Afro Blue Monk”, Ileana herself sings on the first-ever recording of the vocal additions. The results are breath-taking. Her rapid-fire Cuban intonations over the 6/8 tempo is… intoxicating. Villafranca and Renta trade leads along the way before surrendering to the rhythm section. In the end, though, it is piano, sax and Ileana that take it home.

Victor Lewis’ composition “Hey, It’s Me You’re Talking To” was arranged by drummer Vince Cherico and is one of those arrangements that brings the listener back over and over again. Ivan Renta, again, is in perfect partnership with Elio Villafranca. The propulsion supplied by Cherico and Chembo, however, makes even a non-dancer want to, at least, move in some fashion.

Clarinetist/Flutist Frank Fontaine makes a guest appearance for “Danzon Del Invierno” with great effect. The opening by the solo piano, however, sets the imagery for a winter’s dance. Fontaine’s clarinet glides in sweetly and is accompanied so well by piano and percussion. Carlo DeRosa pleasantly surprises again with the bow and bass for an all-too-brief solo. Fontaine’s switch from clarinet to flute is another pleasant surprise with a little Ian Anderson madness thrown in for the fun. The treatment of the Nicki Denner composition/arrangement is riveting. This is a piano concerto within a tango and it works. For all that, DeRosa’s bass solo steals the show.

What follows is the second half of the album title, “Blue Monk” composed, of course, by Thelonious Monk and wonderfully arranged by Elio Villafranca. The piece is instantly recognizable but the Jimmy Owens appearance on trumpet alongside Renta’s sax makes one understand that something exciting is going to happen—and it does. Monk’s B-flat blues piece is handled marvelously in an Afro-Cuban tempo. And this is where Chembo turns it all loose. If Mongo SantamarÍa was the 20th century’s great “conguero,” then Chembo Corniel has positioned himself to make a run for that title in the 21st century.

“Blue Monk” was Monk’s favorite composition and he recorded it over thirty times with every ensemble from trio to big band. While “Blue Monk” is certainly one of Monk’s simplest songs, it is so well structured for leaps into solos—with its four-note chromatic rise in eighth notes—that makes it a great showcase for musicians.

Monk admitted once that the trio setting was his favorite scenario for performing it. However, the Carnegie Hall Concert of November, 1957 with the quintet has got to be included in anyone’s list of great performances of that (or any other) song.

Chembo’s Quintet takes every opportunity for powerful solos and they do not disappoint. This Monk piece creates the ideal setting for this group of exquisite musicians to enthrall and thrill.

The following track is easily the most emotional and moving piece of the album. Composed by the great Chucho Valdés, “Claudia” was arranged by Chembo Corniel. This song is a smoky jazz sweetheart. Ivan Renta’s breathy sax solos are a smoldering expression of what must have been in Valdés’ heart as he composed this. Villafranca’s piano runs form intriguing counter-point to the sax.

The listener is jolted from their sentimental reverie as Chembo and Cherico turn on the churning percussion to open the next track entitled “Don Quijote.” Another Villafranca original, it again allows for the corps progressions that bring all guns to bear. The rhythm section creates earthy support of the high-flying ideals expressed in the sax and piano solos. This is the second piece that keeps a listener coming back for more of it. Villafranca’s writing skills are well-honed and intricate. Think Chick Corea.
Vince Cherico’s drumming is pronounced and captivating. Come back for more of this one.

The last track is a Wayne Shorter number and arranged by Chembo. It is also Jimmy Owens’ second appearance on the album. He fits so well alongside Ivan Renta which makes them a dream horn section. It also features another sweet bass solo from Carlo DeRosa and now-to-be-expected fine piano work from Villafranca. The album concludes with all the players in unison; a fitting conclusion indeed.

One comes to expect that a band with a drummer or percussionist bandleader is going to simply be in support of that percussionist. Jack Parnell and Buddy Rich come to mind. Often the solos were simply interminable as the drummer/percussionist kept the spotlight firmly to themselves…especially Rich. Among the great Latin Jazz percussionist bandleaders like Bobby Sanabria and Wilson “Chembo” Corniel, this has not proven to be the case. While listening to “Afro Blue Monk” it is almost impossible to keep in mind that the leader of this band is a percussionist. In fact, no one musician stands out above the rest. This is shared ground. For a lover of jazz, this is sacred ground.

One of the great lessons taught to young musicians is on creating space for other performers. It speaks of selfless love for the music and the band-mates, pointing to the music as the goal. In this same way, Chembo has created a band and a band philosophy of creating space and he is the chief example of it. There is good reason that this band, “Grupo Chaworo,” has lasted for ten years.

He has also found the right way of taking historic pieces and mixing them with new compositions and brand new arrangements to create a sound and a feel that is fresh but grounded, innovative but reverent.

There have been precious few new recordings that have excited me so. I was captured from the opening bars of the first track and was relentlessly but delightedly held until the very end. There is integrity and exploration to be found here… and so much beauty.

The CD is on the American Showplace Music label (catalog no. 149635730), sold and distributed by Allegro Music.

1 Comment

  • Oct 18, 2013 at 10:21AM alease ball

    It's a beautiful sound indeed.

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Travis Rogers