First there's the beat -- insistent, thumping like a heart. The sound of a conga is soon joined by timbales, and a guitar lays down an eight-note vamp, echoed by the horn section. As the musicians chant the title of the opening track, "Oh-Mi Seh Yeh," the song builds into a mesmerizing anthem, delivering the subtle but certain message that trumpeter Roy Hargrove's latest Verve release, "Habana," is not a typical Latin jazz project.
Though the 26-year-old Hargrove only began exploring Afro-Cuban rhythms during a 1996 trip to Cuba, he has quickly become comfortable with the rhythmic nuances of the island's music. Rather than impose himself on the music with his ample technique, Hargrove builds his solos thoughtfully, pausing between notes to let the music breathe.
Recorded early this year in Orvieto, Italy, during a week-long residency at the Umbria Jazz Festival, "Habana" brings together some of Cuba's finest musicians with an impressive crew of jazz veterans. From Cuba, there's the legendary pianist and band leader Chucho Valdes, conguero Miguel "Anga" Diaz, drummer Horacio "El Negro" Hernandez and timbales master Jose Luis "Changuito" Quintana -- all little-known in the U.S. due to the State Department's ongoing (but recently more relaxed) cultural ban on Cuban performers. Powerhouse alto saxophonist Gary Bartz, guitarist Russell Malone, Puerto Rican-raised bassist John Benitez and brilliant young tenor saxophonist David Sanchez, also from Puerto Rico, round out the U.S. contingent.
Hargrove calls the band his crisol, a Spanish word for crucible or melting pot. The two groups of musicians do meld effectively, but the temperature on "Habana" rarely rises to a boil, despite the many fine solos. But these players can, and do, really burn when they want to -- Valdes' fiery minor blues "Mr. Bruce" is one of Hargrove's most inspired recorded solos.
But "Habana" is more an arranger's album, and it's the mid-tempo tunes that set the session's overall mood. Though five different musicians crafted charts for the 10-piece ensemble, the album has a unified feel, as if every tune were cut from the same cloth. On Bartz's dreamily soulful "Nusia's Poem," the richly textured horn chart anchored by Lacy's fat trombone line is perfectly integrated with the Cuban rhythm section. Hewing close to the mid-'60s post-bop sound he mastered years ago, Hargrove covers two of the late trumpeter Kenny Dorham's best known Latin tunes, "Una Mas" and "Afrodesia," while his own tune, the jaunty "Dream Traveler," could have come from one of Wayne Shorter's mid-'60s Blue Note albums. Revealing a depth and coherence rarely heard from players of his generation, Hargrove explores new rhythmic territory on "Habana" but keeps it close to home.