The most adventurous song on High Voltage is the only one 83-year-old Latin-jazz percussion-titan Ray Mantilla composed for the project. Entitled “Lane Change,” it leads with torrid Hindustani tabla beats by Maitreya Padukone, dutifully followed by a similar barrage from Mantilla on cajón. Bassist Cucho Martinez joins in by the second minute, then the wet, throaty trills from flutist Jorge Castro are set in dynamic contrast to the airy Fender Rhodes fills from Edy Martinez. All the while, Mantilla, Padukone and drummer Diego López tromp the throttle on the rhythm.
The rest of High Voltage allows us to savor Mantilla in the twilight of his career. His song choices are idiosyncratic and subtly biographical, and he and the core sextet embrace a versatile array of mainstream traditions with ease. “Cedar’s Blues” is a nod toward Mantilla’s stint with its composer, Cedar Walton. It’s stylishly buoyant hard bop, with plush unison horns ushering in tenor saxophone (Ivan Renta), trumpet (Guido Gonzalez), Fender Rhodes and bass solos, all enriched by the pulse of Mantilla. A pair of venerable numbers are given the bolero treatment: “The Gypsy,” a 1940s hit for the Ink Spots that becomes a showcase for Renta; and “Ramona,” an oft-covered theme from the 1928 silent film of the same name, dedicated here to Mantilla’s mother, Ramona Maldonado. More understated than most congueros, Mantilla is nevertheless a pliable dynamo as Castro growls on baritone sax during the Latin-jazz track “Exit 45,” and vibraphonist Mike Freeman sits in on a sparkling rendition of Willy Gamboa’s mambo “Tu No Me Quieres.” An awkward “Tequila” riff to open “Solar” is the only distinctive thing about a take of the overdone Miles Davis tune, but the band recovers via some terrific Mantilla combinations and a swinging bop groove on Ron Carter’s obscure “Third Plane.”
Ray Mantilla has never been flashy. But like all of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, you can take his musicianship to the bank. Raise your interest rate while he’s still around.Originally Published