The leader of the Jazz on the Latin Side All Stars and radio personality Jose Rizo pays tribute here to one of his heroes, conguero Mongo Santamaria. Combining Santamaria classics with some newer compositions, Rizo has assembled a ten-piece group to produced a fine album of Afro-Cuban jazz with a retro sound that still feels fresh and fun.
Santamaria was a leader and innovator in Latin jazz, promoting the charanga/jazz style of the early 1960s, which features violin, flute, and tenor sax fronting a rhythm section. Without brass, the result is a lighter, lilting sound but with a punch that can be enjoyed by both listeners and dancers. The band, a group of mostly West Coast musicians, has recreated (and updated) the sound, with guests who played with or were taught by Santamaria himself, including Hubert Laws (flute), and Pancho Sanchez (congas).
Daniel Lozano (flute) and Dayren Santamaria (violin) provide that soft, sexy charanga atmosphere with their sweet leads and solos, while tenor sax man Justin Almario makes a strong post-bop impression and adds some fiery playing himself. Hubert Laws, who played with Mongo, offers up a delicious lead on flute in the opening track. Several of the tunes features vocalist Adonis Puentes, along with guests Freddie Crespo and Destani Wolf, and they sing with great expression and soul, especially on the slower ballads. However, the backbone of the band is the rhythm section. Congas, timbales, and other percussion give the band the drive and forward motion that is so vital to the style. Joey De Leon, Ramon Banda, Rene Camacho, and Alfredo Ortiz keep the feet moving. The congas are never far from the front, and De Leon solos in several tunes, while Poncho Sanchez guests on a couple as well. Both are strong and capable of amazing rhythmic feats.
Oscar Hernandez, the pianist, does a good deal of the arranging, with some help from Francisco Torres, and the result is very satisfying. "Afro Blue," the jam, or descargo, on the last track brings everything together and winds up the album in a way that makes you want more. There are no weak tracks, sloppy solos, or lackluster arrangements here. It's all fire and light and soulful delivery underlain by a beat that's irresistible. Charanga jazz is back and in good hands.