Mardi Gras Mambo brilliantly reveals the profound musical resonance between Havana and New Orleans, the consequence of a shared Caribbean history in which the African slave trade has been a pivotal theme. Sister cities, they have nurtured vibrant musical cultures whose expressiveness reflects the singular experience of the African Diaspora. An affirmation of U.S.-Cuban cultural affinity, Mardi Gras Mambo could only have been made in the Crescent City. It celebrates a musical kinship traceable to Louisiana composer and pianist Louis Moreau Gottschalk's frequent mid-19th century Havana visits, where he borrowed Cuban melodies and rhythms in his own compositions. By the 1870s, the habanera bass line, a stylistic marker of the Cuban contradanza, had gained hold in the United States. Of course, ragtime and early jazz were steeped in a Caribbean gumbo as well. Indeed, Jelly Roll Morton would elevate New Orleans music's 'Spanish tinge' to canonical status.
A live Cubanísmo performance projects a musical force field within which it is impossible not to dance, and this studio session simmers at nearly the same energy level. Trumpeter and leader Jesús Alemañy directs a deceptively laid-back, enormously erudite collaboration with the Yockamo All-Stars and Crescent City R&B singers John Boutté and Topsy Chapman. The result: a ringing expression of the powerful kinship between the New Orleans second line and Cuban rumba and carnaval. As Gumbo Son relates (in Spanish), "I'm going to New Orleans, because they really party down..." So it is on "Shallow Water Suite," as the majesty of Mardi Gras chanting (a bilingual quotation of "Iko, Iko"), gospel, rhythm and blues flows seamlessly into the vocal call-and-response and polyrhythms of rumba, and the distinctive trumpet signature of the Cuban son.
Stir in several more Crescent City chestnuts done anew, from the title cut to "Marie Laveaux," "Mother-In-Law," "It Do Me Good," the eerie "Nothing Up My Sleeve," and the rapping exuberance of "Rampart Street Rumba." Add a heaping dose of Cuban soul with Arsenio Rodríguez's "Paso En Tampa" (a wry bilingual commentary on the cultural mishaps of a Cuban immigrant adrift in Florida), Yosvany Terry's rumba chant "Monteorlines," the leader's own "Alemañy's Boogaloo," and the closing cut, Terry's "Cuborleans," a spirited musical fusion. It features Nachito Herrera's pulsing piano montuno, Alemañy's trumpet and Terry's alto sax against Glenn Patscha's fatback Hammond B3, a sizzling second line blowout on tenor sax (Tim Green), trombone and tuba (Craig Klein), and the relentless percussive strut of Herlin Riley on drum kit. Mardi Gras Mambo confirms that to honor one's traditions need never be a staid, formulaic exercise, but rather, a relaxed yet reverent invocation of the kindred African-Caribbean spirits that breathe new life into the music with every performance. - Michael Stone
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