If your Latin jazz collection centers mainly around styles from Cuba and Brazil, pianist Edward Simon would like you to consider expanding your library to include musical influences from a culturally diverse land geographically situated between those two countries -- namely Venezuela, where he was born and lived until the age of 12. Simon is an acclaimed post-bop and modern creative jazz pianist in his adopted country of the United States, and while Latin American elements have certainly seasoned his recorded output to date, this 2014 Sunnyside release finds him focusing more intently than ever on the nexus between creative jazz and the folk music of his home country. The album's title is derived from "Venezuelan Suite," whose four parts fill over 28 minutes of the disc's concise 38-minute duration. Simon composed the suite for his Ensemble Venezuela, and the ten-member version of the group heard here -- including musicians from the U.S., Venezuela, and Colombia -- is wonderfully vibrant, ably fulfilling the pianist's creative intent. Chamber Music America commissioned Simon to write this work, and he rose to the challenge with music that is suitably rich with timbral and textural variety. Opening with the suite's first part, "Barinas," the ensemble displays facets both bright and deep as Marco Granados' nimble flute playing contrasts with Simon's harmonically rich chording; the composer's ear for timbral color is revealed in the beautiful combination of Granados' flute, Mark Turner's tenor saxophone, and John Ellis' bass clarinet, heard in both unison and polyphonic lines.
A Simon piano feature gains momentum as it transitions into a tight full-ensemble workout, but the sparks really fly when keys, flute, and reeds drop away and the spotlight falls squarely on Venezuelan bassist Roberto Koch and cuatro player Jorge Glem, impossibly energetic as their fingers dance across the strings and they reveal the joropo at the heart of "Barinas." Glem is particularly astounding on the diminutive four-string cuatro, with hyperactive strumming and chordal mastery in both jazz and folk idioms, and the rollicking momentum and crisp sonics of the Koch-Glem pairing are only accentuated when Edmar Castañeda's harp and various percussives (the band includes drummer Adam Cruz, percussionist Luis Quintero, and maracas player Leonardo Granados) enter the mix. The band supplies a steady rolling groove beneath Ellis' moody bass clarinet solo on the merengue-informed "Caracas," with Simon comping atmospherically and joining Marco Granados and Turner in accenting riffs that lead back to the tune's engaging themes. Turner solos passionately in the pensive "Merida," but with tastefulness that never obscures the composition's gentle lyricism, and the tenor man gets another opportunity to shine in "Maracaibo," his flurries of notes unleashed over the insistent rhythms of the percussionists, who take over and drive the suite to a near-minimalistically precise finale. The album ends with Simon's expansive, nine-and-a-half-minute arrangement of Heráclio Fernandez's classic "El Diablo Suelto," proving that the pianist can draw even the most iconic Venezuelan music into his creative jazz world with similarly expressive results.