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Little Johnny Rivero: Music in Me

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Percussionist Vicente “Little Johnny” Rivero has had a fruitful career, but his recorded legacy is sparse. He released his debut, 2006’s Pasos Gigantes (Rhumba Jams) , after serving as the driving rhythmic force behind La Sonora Ponceña, one of Puerto Rico’s most legendary salsa aggregations, for more than 15 years. Now, 10 years later, he has issued his second recording under his own name. The overall theme is laudatory; several of these pieces praise role models and mentors, and at least two, “Africa My Land” and “Afro-Rykan Thoughts,” pay homage to this music’s diasporan cultural roots. Rivero’s core sextet is augmented by no fewer than nine special guests, and his liner notes cite influences ranging from Machito and Eddie Palmieri through Art Blakey and Tony Bennett.

From the beginning it’s clear that percussion will be a lead voice throughout, as the variegated beats and sonic textures from Rivero, drummer Ludwig Afonso, timbales player Luisito Quintero and multi-instrumentalist Anthony Carrillo span the mix. Keyboardist Zaccai Curtis and bassist Luques Curtis deftly balance their dual roles as purveyors of both melody and rhythm, adding yet another dimension to the percussive voices on display. Above this farrago, the brass and wind soloists (as well as Natalie Fernandez, who contributes breathy vocalese to the tribute “Palmieri, Much Respect”) generate ecstasy and cohesion. Rhythms and melodies, composed and improvised, meld space and identities in vintage trickster/shape-shifting fashion, yet another homage to the music’s Africanist roots. At its most effective, as in the extended coda of “Let’s Do It Again,” the interplay creates a vision of an eternal dance, immersing us in the timelessness of ritual.

Originally Published