Trombonist Wayne Wallace and percussionist Michael Spiro have realized a dream with Canto América, a fantastically colorful suite performed by their 35-piece La Orquesta Sinfonietta. The group came together with support from Indiana University's Institute for Advanced Studies in order to give a musical body to the vision of representing as many aspects of the New World's polyglot musical connections and influences as possible -- particularly as it expresses itself in Afro-Latin music and jazz. During numerous trips to Cuba, they witnessed musicians of several traditions informing and interacting with one another, blurring the lines between genres. To that end, they assembled an orchestra complete with strings, reeds, winds, brass, percussion instruments, electronics, and voices. On Canto América, originals, pop, and folk standards are interwoven seamlessly. "Las Propaganda de Hoy," by Wallace and Spiro, is dedicated to the late Juan Formell of Los Van Van. They pay tribute to his aesthetic of placing strings at the forefront of everything. This is a wild meld of charanga, breakbeat, funk, son, montuno, disco, and modernist classical music. The breakdowns and trombone solo are dynamite. Not only would Formell be proud, so would Barry White. Hoagy Carmichael's "Stardust" is offered as a sweet danzon; the cha-cha rhythm presides as strings, winds, and reeds intertwine above gentle congas and timbales. But there's a twist as it transforms into a rich, sexy mambo with an electric bass and drum kit. Mongo Santamaria's classic "Afro Blue" is depicted as an elaborate celebration of the Yoruban folk tradition. Its incantatory opening chant to the orisha of wisdom, justice, and peace gradually becomes a wide-spectrum exercise in polytonal big-band dynamics (more horns and an extra string quartet were added), strutting Latin jazz, and post-bop -- without losing the folksong element. "El Medico" stitches together rhumba, guaguanco, classical counterpoint, salsa, charanga, Latin funk, and vocal improvisation with humor and sass. The traditional "El Calderon de Ogun" is rendered anything but; David Belove's bass playing is an aggressive nod to Jaco Pastorius, and his solo rides above charging piano montunos, polyrhythmic syncopation, and an aggressive interplay between strings and horns. The long "Odun's Road" is actually a suite of folksong styles dedicated to the orisha. Rich in harmonic detail, sensual in texture, but utterly lyrical, the role of chamber instruments is taken by singers who assume a primary role alongside percussion instruments. The music moves through a stylistic labyrinth with an always increasing tempo. In the second half, Wallace's trombone is both a solo instrument and a chorus chant leader. He, Spiro, and Orquestra Sinfonietta deliver something nearly peerless in Canto América. Though highly disciplined and carefully plotted, it is far from an academic exercise. Jazz improvisation and individual acumen shine through while feel and groove consciousness are paramount. Ultimately, this is more than the knowledge and practice of traditions; it is the collective expression of human imagination and heart. Brilliant.
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AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek