As far as eclectic musicians, arrangers, and producers go, Skip Heller is at the top of the class, having recorded and played live with the abstract likes of Yma Sumac, Tish Hinojosa, Ray Campi, and Sun Ra’s John Gilmore as well as crafting his own solo brand(s) of jazz odyssey since the early ’90s. Guitarist Heller also gigged with warmly humorous Chicano hepcat Lalo Guerrero, and has often played the work of equally silly, doubly encyclopedic Looney Tunes composer/bandleader Raymond Scott in the Reckless Night Ensemble he shares with bassist Nick Ornelas and vocalist Angelica Villarreal.
With that experience, dedication, and love of subject behind it, the experimental big-band ardor of ¡Pan-Americanos! feels close-knit and familiar: as sultry as it is sweet, as simple as it is hammily complex, and as goofy as it is genial and smart. The nonet-plus (guests include violinist Rebecca Schlappich, trumpet-playing accordionist Mike Bolger, and saxophonist Jason Fabus) ties together, tightly, the diverse works of both madcap music icons, and unites their twin aesthetics under one groove.
In the nimble fingers of player/transcriber Heller and his Reckless Night crew, the fussily zig-zagging Scott track “Powerhouse” becomes just that, muscular and dense. At the same time, Guerrero’s “Vamos a Bailar” and “Me Gusta el Cha Cha Cha” maintain their long-held charm offensive while swelling with a newfound Mexicali cool and instrumental brawn. Speaking of cool, the haunted noir of Scott’s “Naked City” may be even more reminiscent of Duke Ellington than of its actual composer (think “Weary Blues,” only more fearful than sad). As good as all this is, you can’t help wishing that ¡Pan-Americanos! were longer and allowed for a greater stretch into each man’s catalog—especially that of Arizona-born Guerrero, whose work as an activist and influence on pop-Mexican work like Linda Ronstadt’s is still better known than his own music.