Once a fine modern jazz trumpeter in his own right, Marty Sheller lost his embouchure and concentrated on arranging and composing. A past member of the mighty Mongo Santamaria's bands, Sheller turned to writing charts for the Cuban conga player, with a great deal of success over three decades. Now that the hand percussion strongman has passed on, Sheller dutifully pays tribute to him with this program of music that leans more toward the progressive big band sound post-Thad Jones/Mel Lewis, with hints, flourishes, and accents of Latin music. This nonet, featuring trumpeters Joe Magnarelli and Chris Rogers, saxophonists Bobby Porcelli and Bob Franceschini, trombonist Sam Burtis, the wonderful pianist Oscar Hernandez and drummer Vince Cherico, gives Sheller more than enough firepower and musical good taste to make his arrangements come alive. Three of Sheller's originals are here, including the brassy and dramatic modern swing samba "The Route 40 Flyer" with Franceschini sounding very much like Gato Barbieri, the 6/8 "El Pavo" which is an Afro-Cuban variation on a previous Sheller tune, and the similarly time signatured "Love in a Mist," sporting a most expansive, swelling chart that breathes deeply. The rearrangements include a much more upbeat, fully interpreted clave piano based take of Wayne Shorter's modal "Mahjong," and Porcelli's expressive alto on the ballad "Sweet & Lovely." Porcelli also gets the spotlight on his composition "Why Deny?," a hard bopper not hard to imagine in the repertoire of trumpeter Woody Shaw, loaded with staccato and bright inventions leading to a static Latin bridge. The player are all truly outstanding soloists and readers, while the ever present drumming of Cherico, percussionist Steve Berrios, and the brilliant pianistics of Hernandez provide a solid platform for Sheller's layered orchestrations to shine through. Why this type of project wasn't recorded three decades prior is a mystery, but we have it now, and it is well worth your effort to savor.
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AllMusic Review by Michael G. Nastos