Johnny Blas

Indestructible Spirit

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At long last, Latin jazzman Johnny Blas is back with a new recording, his first in the 21st century. It has been eight years since King Conga, almost a decade since Mambo 2000, and almost 11 since his debut for Cubop in 1997 with Skin & Bones. Those records, with their quartet of trombones (one of them played by Dan Weinstein, who was the band's musical director), electric guitars, violins, claves, and flute along with Blas' killer congas and other percussion, set some new standards for Latin jazz in the 21st century. That said, all three of those recordings were of a piece, in a sense. They were all solid (actually, Mambo 2000 was simply killer), innovative, and using earlier forms while simultaneously reinventing the wheel. Indestructible Spirit is a complete shift from his previous catalog. Blas has not only taken the reins in his new group, he is, along with bassist Jeff Hawley, co-producer. There are nine tunes here, all but two of them written by Blas. For starters, four trombones have become two -- Steve Johnson and Leonard Luna -- and sometimes even one. Weinstein is absent (though he is represented by one of his tunes). Pianist Ryan Prior is now a core part of the band's sound -- and he plays a Rhodes as often as an acoustic piano. Blas has also picked up the saxophone (a soprano) again for the first time in a decade, and plays it on two cuts. Ray Zepeda plays soprano on one and tenorist Paul Clark appears on another. Of course, Blas' conga is everywhere, and timbales and coro are almost as ubiquitous as well. In addition to bass, Hawley plays cuatro and coro, and even does some drum programming on a couple of cuts.

Sound like a mess? Hardly. Indestructible Spirit is a reinvention to be sure, but first and foremost it's a Latin jazz record cut for the 21st century. The record swings hard in places, is funky throughout, and never stops grooving whether on an uptempo mambo or a jazz ballad with layers of percussion. While the opener, "Oaklands Mambo," is pure trademark Blas -- with trombones in the front line with his congas and timbales moving around them and the drum kit -- the popping, loping bassline by Hawley and Prior's piano are something else. The music digs into the heart of jazz, pointillistically exploring the beat, playing counterpoint to the congas and the drum kit. It's a killer track that makes sense as a 12" single, and is a great candidate for remixers. "Puerto Rico Rico" is where the Rhodes makes its first appearance, alongside the cuatro and coro. It's a mellow, grooving, soulful cha-cha, but the Rhodes and bassline move it somewhere else. The comping that Prior does, with both hands, illuminates the rhythms and even serves as their anchor when Hawley plays his solo on the cuatro, which moves across single-line playing by everyone from Pat Martino to the blues before Prior lets the Rhodes shine in his own solo. "Lubi" is another burner. It's a salsa jam opened by the dual trombones before Hawley's bass brings it right down to the funk. This is tough yet futuristic Nuyorican salsa that sizzles and thunders with its odd meter and Afro-Cuban leanings. Luna's trombone solo kicks it, wailing away into the stratosphere. So far so good, right?

Then the big shock: the nine-minute smooth Latin-tinged jazz ballad "Barry Rogers," written by Weinstein. With Zepeda's soprano playing the chief melodic element, Blas spends much of the track just keeping time. If you expected another firestorm after "Lubi," this will be as shock to your system. But what a mellow toaster! It begins slowly and then begins to simmer at about three minutes in, with Zepeda just tearing it up on the soprano. Prior's Rhodes is the perfect complement here, and Blas' own congas are the spiritual heart of the entire tune. The melodic interplay is spectacular. The changes are simple, but with rhythmic invention, a lower-than-the-basement-floor electric bassline, and a Rhodes solo with wonderfully serpentine ostinato lines that knot around Blas' drums, which are ever insistent, controlling pace and space -- and all of it is anchored by Mike Bennett's trap kit. While Zepeda's tone is not Grover Washington, Jr.'s of the Kudu years, his melodic sensibility is very close, rooted in blues and soul. If someone over at Ubiquity could put together a radio edit of the cut, it would be on smooth jazz radio for sure, all the while subverting everything smooth jazz stands for because of its wild multicultural sonic, textural, and rhythmic palette. "Afro Rican" brings back the boiling heat with a smoking conga intro by Blas, who then goes to town on soprano saxophone. Prior's Rhodes is playing a four-chord vamp in true clave style and the trombone enters and is double-tracked, and Hawley gets downright funky on that rubbery bassline. The echo in the production is a little off-putting, but it does sound like something out of time and space. Blas' solo is heavy on the soul tip, his drums engaging with Bennett's traps and working the rhythm from inside, opening up the edges of the tune for Prior to shift his gaze. Quoting from "My Favorite Things," Blas salutes John Coltrane before Prior goads Blas into an intense conga solo, which moves toward a tradeoff with Bennett.

The title track is a monster. With drum programs accenting the deepest edge of the bass drum as voice samples introduce the tune, it's 4:14 of Afro-Cuban fusion. Prior's keyboards lay out a skeletal harmonic frame while loops of muted horns challenge the more angular sounds of the distorted, spaced-out Rhodes, which becomes more prominent as the samples drop away, leaving only the congas as accompaniment. Just wait for Madlib to sample this baby. "Boogaloo Blas" brings things back to the root. It's certainly a boogaloo, but it's not straight; timbales, coro, congas, and trombones lead the way for some inventive piano work by Prior and some tight little breaks by Bennett. The drum programs return on "A Song for Rose," a strange and crunchy little groover that is all in the jazz camp. The Afro-Rican mambo just struts along with loopy trombone lines and Blas playing the hell out of his soprano. The set closes with "Cha Cha Para Ti." A straight cha-cha moves toward hard bop territory with a languid yet steamy tempo and Clark's big-boned tenor solo, which is covered by the conga solo by Blas, whose chops on the drum are as honed as ever. Add to this the fuzzy Rhodes and insistent electric bassline up in the mix, and even the cha-cha becomes a tough little jazz tune for the new millennium.

The bottom line is that Blas has gone out on a limb with Indestructible Spirit, threatening to alienate old fans who want the same thing from him eight years on. His free engagement with soul-jazz and its integration with easy-grooving clubby funk as part of the Afro-Cuba-Rica musical rainbow is an utterly seductive, engaging, and enjoyable listen that gives up more of its sophistication with repeated hearings. This is the sound of Latin jazz becoming an even mightier force on the American scene with new sounds, rhythms, and textures -- as well as arrangements -- that, if given half a chance, will provide an introduction to jazz in general and Latin jazz in particular to people who have either been intimidated by it or disinclined for other reasons. It's musically solid, mercurial, and hip.

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