Easily the most pedigreed and aboriginal of the lot, Cuban percussionist Sabu Martinez’s PALO CONGO is a 1957 date that atypically comes from the Blue Note catalog. Certainly not the sort of thing that producer Alfred Lion was known for (Blue Note aficionados will nonetheless be familiar with the many large- scale percussion recitals from Art Blakey and Solomon Ilori’s AFRICAN HIGH-LIFE), this set is essentially a document of the type of ritual drum gatherings that distinguish the Cuban religion known as "Santaria". Call and response is part and parcel of such divine rites, a sample of which can be found in the animated performances of "Billumba-Palo Congo" and "Aggo Elegua."
Four other percussionists along with Sabu create the choir of conga drums in their various sizes and pitches, supported on some selections by a bassist and on a few others by the guitar of Arsenio Rodriguez. Expertly recorded by Rudy Van Gelder and released here for the first time in stereo, PALO CONGO is a historically-important document of the Afro-Cuban tradition and required listening for anyone fascinated by Santaria and its legacy.
Also very fundamental and true to form in its presentation, Art Blakey's THE AFRICAN BEAT was to be the last percussion ensemble date that he would record for Blue Note, its predecessors being the two volume sets of ORGY IN RHYTHM and HOLIDAY FOR SKINS. Blakey is found mostly behind that Western invention, the drum set, leaving the tribal rhythms to such legendary percussionists as Chief Bey, Montego Joe, and Solomon Ilori (and in a strange instrument swap, trombonist Curtis Fuller sits behind the tympani). While chanting and give-and-take drum workouts dominate here, there's much diversity provided by the addition of bassist Ahmed Abdul-Malik and multi-reedman Yusef Lateef, who's heard on tenor sax, flute, and oboe. This 1962 session easily qualifies as Blakey's best investigation in melding drum styles and cultures and you don't have to be a drum fanatic to find yourself caught up in THE AFRICAN BEAT'S enchanting incantation.
Moving from works with the percussionists as the center of attention, bandleader Machito's KENYA adds some shouting horns to a large ensemble representative of the Latin dance bands that became so popular in the late '50s and early '60s. At the time of its recording in 1957, Kenya had become the newest African republic and in turn gave the album its name. Much in the way that the Ellington and Basie bands' repertoire were attuned to dancing, Machito's music is very tuneful and dance-oriented. The jazz element is also more heavily pronounced through the presence of such giants as Cannonball Adderley, Joe Newman, Doc Cheatham, and Eddie Bert.
What would also set Machito's brand of Afro-Cuban jazz apart from more well-known leaders such as Perez Prado would be his use of smarter arrangements, with the charts on KENYA provided by Mario Bauza, Rene Hernandez, and A.K. Salim. The latter, despite the lack of name recognition, is probably the most impressive writer of the three. He contributes seven original scores out of the album's total of a dozen tunes and each one's singular disposition explores a different rhythmic area. Salim would also record several great records for Savoy (the striking BLUES SUITE can still be found on CD) and one for Prestige before disappearing into obscurity. KENYA adds considerably to his meager catalog, not to mention Machito's, and reminds us of his peerless style.
We fast forward the clock to 1969 for a look at an animal of quite a different color. Conga and bongo master Candido Camero, who usually just goes by his first name, has appeared on literally thousand of albums over the years, from purely ethnic percussion displays to adding a bit of spice to Wes Montgomery's commercial A&M/CTI sides. A great companion piece to BEAUTIFUL, his yet to be reissued underground Blue Note classic, Candido's THOUSAND FINGER MAN was originally released on the Solid State label and has been hard to obtain for decades now. Punctuated by shouting brass, accented by the swells of a Hammond B-3, and undergirded by the funky bass work of Chuck Rainey and Gerry Jemmott, this soulful set is sure to be as big a hit on the dance floors as it is likely to be on your home stereo. Arranger Joe Cain's charts recall very closely those that Marty Sheller was turning out at the time for Mongo Santamaria and George Benson (Booker T. & the M.G.'s "Soul Limbo" oddly enough shows up on THOUSAND FINGER MAN and on Sheller's work for Benson's TELL IT LIKE IT IS). Pump up the volume and enjoy!
Finally, we come to the one piece out of the lot that really has very little to do with the Afro-Cuban moniker. CANNONBALL'S BOSSA NOVA taps the cool breezes of the Brazilian attitude that was all the rage during 1963 and for the next few years to follow. One of the seven Riverside dates that Cannonball Adderley brought with him when he made the move to Capitol records, this sumptuous set has only been reissued once prior, on Orrin Keepnews short-lived Landmark imprimatur. With a fat and robust tone, Adderley's alto was just tailor-made for the lilting swing of this choice set of Brazilian classics culled from the pens of Joao Donato, Jobim, and Durval Ferreira. The Bossa Rio Sextet that serves as the rhythm section here is fronted by pianist Sergio Mendes, just a few years away from his popular success with the group Brazil '66. Guitarist Durval Ferreira, trumpeter Pedro Paulo, and perennial drummer Dom Um Romao were some of Brazil's finest session players and their work here is just as vital to the date's success as is Adderley's impassioned solos. A beautiful meeting of the minds, CANNONBALL'S BOSSA NOVA ultimately deserves to be as well-known as Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd's Brazilian flings and maybe that recognition will come with it now being more readily available.