Johnny Blas

Mambo 2000

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The mambo is alive and well and moving into the new millennium. From its murky beginnings in 1940s Cuba to the explosion in Mexico City and New York -- fueled by such greats as PĂ©rez Prado, Machito, and Tito Puente -- the mambo has become one of the staples of Latin music, a style that has regularly crossed over into the popular culture at large. The mambo has risen and declined and revived. With his third CD, Mambo 2000, Los Angeles conguero Johnny Blas has redefined the mambo. The same rhythms are there in the percussion section led by Blas on congas and bongos, with Jose DeLeon on timbales and bongos, Paul Perez on bass, and Mark Gutierrez on piano (he also takes up the guitar here and there). But then a rich, deep horn section comes in with four trombones blown by different combinations of Art Velasco, Francisco Torres, Steve Baxter, Isaac Smith, and Dan Weinstein, who also plays baritone horn, all combining to make a sound never heard in the Palladium days. Mambo 2000 is completely instrumental, mostly mambo, and mostly original material. There is a nice slow number titled "We're Partners in Love" that is crying for lyrics (didn't someone say that the trombone is the instrument most like the human voice?), but the rest is pure mambo, including a fiery version of Puente's "Picadillo." It's easy to forget that this is mambo as the music takes you places the old mamberos never dared tread. The horns trade solos and switch to harmonies and there is a structure to the whole effort, but there is plenty of room to swing: the album has a looseness about it that speaks to spontaneity. The mix is good, and the horns are turned down a notch when it's time for Blas to solo so the percussion can be heard clearly. The album's best moment comes in a tune called "Grab a Hold of Yourself," which starts out with an Eddie Palmieri-esque piano pattern. The trombones come in and play the theme, then Isaac Smith starts a solo, with his trombone sounding very deep and fuzzy (almost like a tuba), then sharpening up. Next, more horns join in, trading licks back and forth; the sound is thick and getting thicker. Suddenly, the horns are gone and a crisp piano solo starts out mildly then gets crazier and crazier. Halfway through the piano solo, several horns start to blow drone notes, deep and rich, that sound just like the 16-foot sacred horns Tibetan monks blow to help their brothers enter the state of blissful trance. As DeLeon plays a rapid-fire bongo solo, the piano repeats the same phrase over and over, perpetuating the hypnotic vision until a roll of the timbales and a recognition of the original theme bring back reality. If Blas continues to keep up the hard work and imagination he showed on Mambo 2000, he'll be around for a long time.

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