Ray Mantilla, who died in March of lymphoma at 85, knew Rebirth would be his final album. Yet there was no need for the master percussionist to alter a personal template that has influenced Latin jazz for over a half-century. Aside from bassist Reuben Rodriguez, Rebirth’s core sextet (plus guest vibraphonist Mike Freeman) is no different from the ensemble featured on Mantilla’s previous recording (and ninth as a leader), 2017’s High Voltage.
Even when Mantilla “shows off,” it’s tucked into the organic folds of the music. The first 35 seconds of Rebirth’s lead track, Piro Rodriguez’s “Moondance,” unleash such a smooth, efficient juggernaut of percussive tone, timbre, and rhythm that you’re ushered into the arrangement without much chance for conscious appraisal. Next up, a pair of standards are tweaked. Bobby Timmons’ swinging “Dat Dere” is undergirded by a sinuous salsa montuno groove from pianist/arranger Edy Martinez, and “Hit the Road Jack” becomes a vehicle for Freeman’s gilded vibes. All the while, Mantilla cooks alongside bassist Rodriguez and drummer Diego López at a burbling simmer that eliminates waste and concentrates the ingredients. When Martinez switches to Fender Rhodes for a more diaphanous pairing with Freeman on “Philly Mambo,” the braid of Afro-Cuban beats and nifty fills thrives in the transparency.
Nor should we forget the trio of horns. Alternating between flute and bari sax, Jorge Castro is often the awning that sets the shade level, Iván Renta delivers liquid solos on tenor (and occasionally soprano) sax, and trumpeter Guido González more than holds his own as the band’s lone brass.
Mantilla always wanted his affinity for adventurism to be acknowledged. He dubbed his own principal ensemble the Space Station for the way it transported tradition into the unknown. Fittingly, he closes Rebirth, and his recording career, by harking back to the ancient Yoruba bata drum for a final futuristic salvo on “Rebirth Bata Rumba Experimental.” It’s a successful reminder of the rich circle of sound that came from the mind and hands of Ray Mantilla.