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Ray Barretto and New World Spirit plus 4: Portraits in Jazz and Clave

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Back in the day when Mario Bauz, Chico O’Farrill and Dizzy were striving to link up Afro Cuban son ‘n’ clave with Afro American swing and bop, they built their bridges on the backs of ex-Havana conguero masters like Chano Pozo and Mongo Santamaria. As the ’50s waned, the Latin jazz vanguard was led by Nuyorican timbalero Tito Puente and his conguero homeboy Ray Barretto. Well-schooled in Cuban guaguanco, Puerto Rican bomba/plena, veteran of bop jam sessions at Mintons, Barretto was the right cat at the right time.

First kicking off the Latin boogaloo craze with the 1963 R&B crossover smash “El Watusi,” by the end of the ’80s Barretto’s groundbreaking solo (Acid), Fania All-Stars and pop (Rolling Stones) recordings made him the most ubiquitous conguero of all. Since the early ’90s, the various editions of his New World Spirit ensemble have consistently dropped some of the deepest Latin jazz music on the planet.

At a time when Latin jazz legends and newer jacks alike are content to place-and-show (see Tito and Arturo Sandoval), Mr. Hard Hands’ latest New World Spirit + 4 recording, Portraits in Jazz and Clave, finds him still in the lead, maxing mph. Cold chilling behind the wheel of a low-riding machine tweaked, torqued and souped by Steve Turre, Joe Lovano, Kenny Burrell, Eddie Gomez, John Bailey, Adam Kolker, John Di Martino and Bobby Sanabria (trombone/shells, tenor sax, guitar, bass, trumpet, tenor/soprano, piano, percussion, respectively), Barretto deftly up/downshifts his way through Turre’s sneaky/snaky jazz ‘n’ clave variations on Duke (“The Mooche”), Monk (“I Mean You”), Shorter (“Go”) and Hernandez (“Lamento Borincano”).

After some 50-odd years of fervid cross-cultural exchange, Portraits in Jazz and Clave is as much testimony to the continuing relevance of Latin jazz as it is to the artistic resilience of Ray Barretto.