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Chico Freeman and Guataca: Oh, By the Way

On Oh, By the Way…, multireeds master Chico Freeman puts a different spin on Afro-Cuban jazz by extending its boundaries to include hip-hop, flamenco and R&B grooves. While this sort of blending isn’t a first, Freeman does succeed in assimilating the various idioms with mostly compelling results.

Drummer Terreon Gully’s hard, edgy funk rhythms underline and coalesce wonderfully with percussionists Pibo Marquez and Chembo Corniel’s interlocking polyrhythms, while Avery Sharpe’s sturdy bass lines give the compositions additional propulsion. Hilton Ruiz’s sparse piano accompaniments are at once percussive and pliant. Oftentimes, he seems to completely disappear from the songs, but once Ruiz reenters, his presence takes the music to new heights.

Freeman, who’s known for volcanic saxophone eruptions, keeps his improvisations so close to the melody on this CD that they sound composed. On songs like “Rhythm of the Cane” and “El Mensaje” Freeman’s pensive approach sometimes sounds too reserved: The grooves are piping hot, but the songs hardly take off like they could. But when Freeman duos with guitarist Romero on the beautiful “La Luna” and the sunny “Guitar” his lucid improvisations dance brightly.

When Freeman attempts hip-hop on Oh, By The Way…, the results are refreshingly appealing. Rapper Akil Dasan doesn’t have the charisma of Eminem or the narrative brilliance of Common, but you can imagine him holding his own during a freestyle session. Dasan raps rapidly in a tricky syntax that sometimes recalls a Dirty South flow, especially on “Business as Usual.”

Ambitious, passionate and sometimes too tentative, Oh, By The Way… is still a worthy musical concept for future explorations from Freeman.

Originally Published