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Caribbean Jazz Project: Here and Now – Live in Concert

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A wintry night in Pittsburgh seems the wrong time to fully appreciate the tropical splendor of the Caribbean Jazz Project. But that was the case last winter when Dave Samuels and his sizzling cohorts transformed the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild Concert Hall into a sunshine-dappled beach party. The resultant double-disc set, Here and Now, assembled from four consecutive evening performances, delivers a whopping two hours of dazzling Latinized ingenuity.

As any longstanding fan knows, keeping up with the CJP’s constant personnel churn throughout its decade-long history would demand the skills of a baseball statistician. Indeed, at this juncture Samuels remains the only constant. For a while, listeners grew comfortable with the one-two punch of Samuels on vibes and marimba and Dave Valentin on flute. But the post-Valentin release of Birds of a Feather in 2003 signaled a freshly muscular CJP-with Diego Urcola on trumpet and flugelhorn, bassist Oscar Stagnaro and drummer Mark Walker-for Here and Now.

The territory is largely familiar-“Turnabout” and “Picture Frame” from Feather, “One Step Ahead” and Coltrane’s “Naima” form 2001’s Paraiso, Monk’s “Bemsha Swing,” Oliver Nelson’s “Stolen Moments,” the scorching, Samuels-penned “Rendezvous” from 2002’s The Gathering and, reaching all the way back to CJP’s 2000 Concord debut, New Horizons, a towering “Night in Tunisia”-but these live treatments all seem to leap newly hatched from the Concert Hall stage.

Hot on the heels of Here and Now, Concord paired CJP with one of its longest-standing successes, singer Diane Schuur. On paper it must’ve seemed the perfect arranged marriage. In practice, it’s like ordering spicy jerk chicken and then dousing it in ketchup. Schuur, admittedly never my favorite song stylist, uses that giant, make-sure-they-can-hear-you-in-the-parking-lot voice of hers to tromp all over the gorgeously crafted, richly imaginative arrangements of standards old and new, ranging from “More Than You Know” and “Lover Come Back to Me” to Stevie Wonder’s “As” and James Taylor’s “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight.”

Unlike Lani Hall, who blended so seamlessly with Sergio Mendes and his Brasil ’66 compadres, Schuur occupies a completely alternate space from CJP-one lined with tin and brass rather than silk and sea breezes. Nor does her too-often exhibited emotional insincerity, particularly on a bland “I Can’t Stop Loving You” and an overcooked “So in Love,” help bridge the chasm. Still, Schuur Fire is not without its charms. Her “Close Enough for Love” conjures precisely the right note of mystery and, ironically, her homage to Hall on the Brasil ’66 signature tune “Look Around” is, with a little help from her rhythmically gifted new friends, very nearly as enchantingly optimistic as the original.