From the opening notes of "Mambo Rapidito," the first single and opening track from Orquesta Akokán's self-titled debut album on Daptone, it's impossible not to move one's feet and hips. An homage to the great mambo music of the '40s and '50s, this 16-piece big band of seasoned Cuban musicians -- that includes lead vocalist Jose "Pepito" Gomez and pianist/arranger Michael Eckroth -- makes the dancefloor burn.
Recorded at Havana's legendary Areito Studios over four days in 2016, this nine-track set offers the same intensity and joy that burst forth from recordings by Arsenio Rodríguez, Benny Moré, Tito Puente, and Perez Prado. It's a welcome return for Daptone, whose roster has suffered heavy losses with the deaths of Dan Klein, Sharon Jones, and Charles Bradley. While this is the label's first Spanish-language album, based on the evidence herein, we can only hope it isn't their last.
Though recorded in Havana, the album's back story begins in New York City. Producer and musician Jacob Plasse -- a longtime Latin music aficionado who runs the Chulo label and performs in salsa outfit Los Hacheros -- had been heavily steeped in mambo for years and was looking to make a record inspired by the aforementioned sources. He contacted Gomez, who was born in Cuba but was residing in New Jersey. The singer fronted the legendary Maravilla de Florida, toured with Compay Segundo, and leads the Cuban supergroup Pupy y Los Que Son Son. Plasse was also working with arranger/pianist Eckroth, who has written charts for everyone from Pedro Martinez to Johnny Rodriguez. The trio composed for a small N.Y. ensemble, but it became obvious that while the songs were there, the musicianship wasn't. Gomez was heading to Havana to tour with Pupy y Los Que Son Son. He encouraged Plasse to join him and cut the album there. The singer fashioned his many friends and contacts into a stellar group of multi-generational players.
The recordings were made live to tape, giving the album its bright, kinetic, warm feel. Eckroth's charts are faithful but forward-thinking. At times, the glorious rapid-fire piano montunos are delivered by the saxophone section; elsewhere, they trade rhythmic and harmonic statements in call-and-response cadences that make the entire band a rhythm machine. Check the tumbao rhythms in "La Corbata Barata" that fuel the band through rhumba, cha-cha, and swinging modern Latin jazz before it's over. On "La Cosa," saxophones offer a melodic theme as trumpets reply in seeming counterpoint, but are actually doubling in the cascara role -- drum sticks on the side of the timbales. "Otro Nivel" weaves mambo and son with a killer delivery by Gomez above the layered propulsive rhythms. The syncopated jazzy horn charts that introduce "Cuidado con el Tumbador" recall Moré's group, but are appended by poignant tres amid lead and chorus vocals.
The word "Akokán" means "from the heart," and the playing here underscores the translation. While the recording was meant as an homage, the innovations in both charts and performance make it simultaneously modern and timeless.