I hate to admit, I’m a sucker for Latin jazz. It’s happy music that goes straight to your hips and, as we all know, hips don’t lie.
But I accept that it can sometimes have a whiff of Manchego cheese about it as it descends into easy listening, so it’s pleasing to find artists who are prepared to pull in other influences to refresh and update it.
Pianist Mariah Parker’s Indo Latin Jazz Ensemble attempts to combine the joyous, anarchic, sexy rhythms of Latin jazz with the structured, formal scales of Indian music, in which every note is practically an act of worship. It sounds like an unusual pairing of two very different cultures until you remember that the chili pepper, a staple of Indian cuisine, originated in Mexico. And I first listened to this album while in the kitchen adding turmeric to colour the rice in my paella.
Mariah’s approach is to use her Indian ingredients sparingly, as a seasoning rather than the base for her compositions, and here we have here a live recording from 2009 that concentrates on delivering the quintessential Latin sound; the syncopated, driving rhythms anchored by Mariah’s chordal keyboard stabs and Kash Killion’s precise but playful bass, as percussion instruments dance over the top.
It all sounds fairly safe and tasteful until Paul McCandless lets rip with some Coltrane-y phrases on his soprano sax, puncturing the politeness of the proceedings like a vicar dropping his trousers at a tea dance. In fact, McCandless is the star of the Latin tracks, his rhapsodic improvisations hooting and swooping like a demented owl before grasping the melody and pulling it back into line. But he’s also capable of restrained, precise passages of English horn on the hypnotic For The Waters.
But where is the Indo in the Indo Latin Jazz Ensemble, I hear you cry? When does Parker start doing what it says on the tin? Well, the Indian influence is provided by Matthew Montfort on his scalloped fretboard guitar – the wood between the frets has been scooped out so he bends the strings not by wiggling his finger from side to side but by pressing down. The result is bigger leaps between notes than you can get on a standard guitar, creating a clean sitar-like sound.
On Close Passage Montfort uses this technique for an atmospheric intro, but the tune swiftly asserts its Latin roots and pushes him out of the way. The combination is more successful on Sangria, the title track from Parker’s debut album. Montfort again gives us a sitar-like intro before McCandless takes the lead on oboe, playing wistful raga scales as Mariah massages an Iranian hammered dulcimer called a santur, while Ian Dogole taps an udu percussion pot. It’s a lovely tune that evokes images of dusky maidens gathering water from the mighty Ganges and is the only track that fully justifies the band’s Indo title. Why it is called Sangria only Parker knows; surely Desi daru, the most popular alcoholic beverage in India, would be more appropriate…
Then we come to Song For Satie – the cuckoo in the nest. Neither Latin nor Indian, it is in fact inspired by the minimalist Dadaism of the late 19th/early 20th Century composer Erik Satie. Melancholy and hesitant, played on piano and English horn, it is an accomplished nod to the great man, who is seen by some as a forerunner of the likes of Steve Reich and Philip Glass.
Exuberant, exotic and inventive, Mariah Parker’s talented combo breathes new life into Latin jazz and hints at the interesting journey ahead. It makes you wish you were there at Yoshi’s in Oakland, back in 2009. The only mystery is why it has taken nearly eight years for this entertaining recording to see the light of day.
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