Nerio DeGracia grew up in San Francisco and the vitality and freedom of that city are reflected often and well in his performance and compositions. His 2012 release “The Mambo Jazz Connection” is loaded with nothing but his own original music and his performance is backed with fine musicians who know exactly how to translate his intentions into sound. Nerio also produced every track on the album with Greg Landau as co-producer and sound engineer.
Nerio plays piano, timbales, bongo, bells and guiro but it is his work on the vibes that stands out. His piano work is inspired and creates a stunning backdrop for his playing of the vibraphone.
He cites his great influences as Tito Puente and Mongo Santamaria and as true as that is, there is no hint of derivation in his own playing and composing. Nerio frames his work in classic mambo but makes his own music.
From the opening track entitled “Mas Cambio” Nerio offers a layered treat of his piano/vibes with extraordinary support from David Pinto on bass and Jim Burr on trombone. Michael Browne’s alto sax is introduced at the midway point of the track with Jack Gruber’s congas keeping a cool support throughout the piece. Everyone gets exposure early on in this album.
However, as much as Nerio shines on piano/vibes on the opening track, Pinto’s bass is a fine companion to Nerio’s sound and often threatens to steal the show.
“Federico’s Tumbao” is a showcase for Nerio’s piano. In the context of this song, another Nerio original like all the songs on the album, a “tumbao” is a piano “guajeo.” In Cuban music the “guajeo” is an ostinato melody comprised of arpeggiated chords and often in a syncopated pattern. Nerio takes the form into creative directions, giving full voice to piano and vibes.
“Love Never Dies” may be the most emotionally rewarding track of the album. The piano is moving and rich. There is heartbreak and joy intertwined in this piece and the pendulum between them swings quickly from one to the other. It is not confusing or hectic; it is representative.
“Thinking About You” is pure excitement. Uplifting and energetic, it speaks of the joy of love’s contemplation. Guiro, congas and bass create a pulsating groove that is worth hearing again and again.
Beginning with “My Lover” and continuing through “Loving You” into “Guabopcity” and partially in “Bonita Linda” Nerio takes on the vocals. His breathless intonation is emotional, as well, but it there is a sub-current of playfulness and fun that is unexpected. The tracks are slow and revealing but create a great gateway into the final track “La Descarga.”
La Descarga is a rum club at 1159 North Western Avenue in Los Angeles. It has been called “the hottest spot west of Havana” and the song is as hot as the club.
All the musicians are given the spotlight again to close out the album. The rhythm section grooves and Pinto’s bass gets special attention again. It is a superb ending to a fun album.
The cool side of mambo is on full display in “The Mambo Jazz Connection.” The musicians picked by Nerio play it just that way. Cool.
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