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Francisco Mela & Cuban Safari: Tree of Life

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Francisco Mela and his Cuban Safari take us on a journey from progressive postbop to fusion, Afro-Cuban and beyond. The drummer’s third album as a leader features a solid core group with guest appearances enhancing his diverse compositions and interpretations and a timeless Chilean folk tune.

Jason Moran’s kinetic “Retrograde” opens with Mela’s characteristically propulsive, imaginative rhythms, the lithe saxophone of Uri Gurvich and an incisive piano solo by Elio Villafranca. The shape-shifting “Africa en mis Venas” rocks out at first, Mela’s explosive inflections driving Gurvich’s jagged first theme; guitarist Ben Monder transitions into postbop enhanced by the drummer’s sturdy swing, and Villafranca offers an intricate unaccompanied solo before Gurvich returns, bringing the tune full circle. Esperanza Spalding, Mela’s collaborator in Joe Lovano’s Us Five, appears on the world-music-tinged “Yadan Mela” with free-flowing wordless vocals, Peter Slavov holding it down on bass. “Yo Me” is a funky foray into electric jazz featuring co-composer Jowee Omicil on soprano sax.

Sans drum kit, Mela sings a raspy, tender lead in a duet with Villafranca on Hoagy Carmichael’s “The Nearness of You,” and invites Arturo Stable and Mauricio Herrera for a scorching Cuban drum extravaganza on “Fiesta Conga.” Closing the album is a uniquely dynamic interpretation of Violeta Parra’s “Gracias a la Vida,” opening with the leader’s warm vocals and taken way out by Gurvich and Mela before it returns to its poignant melody.

As polyrhythmic as the music of his native Cuba, and emblematic of his far-reaching approach to jazz, Tree of Life illustrates Mela’s immense talent and charisma as both instrumentalist and leader.

Originally Published