Vibraphonist, marimba-ist, composer and arranger Dave Samuels formed the Caribbean Jazz Project, a small ensemble of between five and seven members, in 1993 shortly after leaving Spyro Gyra. The collective, which has had a variety of members during its 15 years, earned a Grammy in 2003 and was nominated in 2004 and 2005. Their new recording, Afro Bop Alliance, sets nine tunes the group has done over the years into big band settings.
Basically, this recording is a vehicle for Samuels’ inventive and extremely melodic and easily likeable solos. There are others who get some solo space - Luis Hernandez on tenor sax, Steve Williams on alto saxophone, Tim Stanley on trumpet, J.J. Wright on piano - but the bulk of the solos are by Samuels and the arrangements are clearly written around his instrument’s voice.
Some of the arrangements are great. "Rendezvous" has a wonderfully insistent melody, written by Samuels, and the arrangement drives like a locomotive. Samuels’ subsequent solo tears up the keyboard and easily proves why he is such a widely respected musician. On "Soul Sauce" Wright’s electric keyboard solo has just the right mix of rice and beans, jazz clichés and interesting musical asides, to show he has ability, and Samuels’ vibes cast the whole piece into a nice reverie.
"Picture Frame" is a hauntingly beautiful medium ballad with some top-notch horn scoring that reinforces the melancholy nature of the melody. The light samba-ish percussion work sits very carefully in the background never thrusting itself upon the listener creating a perfect mix of taste and pulse. While this may be Samuels’ most harmonically complex solo on the disc, he never goes over the top; his work is always in the pocket and musically pleasurable.
Unfortunately there are other tunes that don’t make much of an impression. "Five For Elvin" never gets off the ground and "Birds Of A Feather" becomes a little stagnant as the piece progresses.
Dave Samuels’ fans, and there are many of them, as well as those who have a special interest in hearing Latin music interpreted through big band arrangements, will find much to enjoy in this recording. For students of jazz the liner notes state a play-along book and CD is available from Alfred Publishing.