On Melao, his first album as a leader, drummer Francisco Mela uses his sticks and his pen to craft spacious, lucid tracks with songful melodies and complex solos that always feel fresh and unlabored. With bassist Peter Slavov and keyboardist Leo Genovese joining him on rhythm, Mela keeps the bottom line hopping and strikes sparks with his soloists, who include saxmen Joe Lovano and George Garzone, guitarists Lionel Loueke and Nir Felder, and reedist Anat Cohen. Mela’s Cuban roots show up in the impassioned singing that begins some tracks, providing an earthy contrast to the elegantly modern jazz environment he creates elsewhere; numbers like “Arere” and “Chela” provide coiled, energetic motives to spur harmonic explorations and nice tunes as a welcome bonus. Lovano and Garzone trade supernova-style solos on the appropriately grand-scaled “Galaxy,” and Mela enlists Lovano to create a lovely suspended yet exploratory atmosphere on “Parallel World.”
Occasionally, one longs for Mela to use his big tunes or his feel for structure to drive the music and make it more vivid; “Obayoko” goes on for a while without doing much, for example. But Melao is never less than diverting, and Mela will surely have the chance to develop further in albums to come.