By George Kanzler
Ellingtonian Juan Tizol - Latin Jazz ProgenitorCopyright © 1998, George Kanzler
If there's a pervading trend in jazz lately, it's the increasing influence of Latin and/or Afro-Cuban rhythms and music on all facets of the music, from the avant-garde to the mainstream. So it was more than apt that the Duke Ellington Society's big spring concert this year saluted Juan Tizol, the valve trombonist and composer who was a founding father of Latin jazz.
Under the leadership of Montclair trombonist and shell-horn master Steve Turre, the concert at Merkin Hall on Saturday night, June 6, made a convincing case for Tizol as a pioneer of Latin jazz as well as one of the most distinctive composers of his time, and an invaluable ingredient in what we have come to know as Ellingtonia.
Because of the prominence of such Cuban-born pioneers as Mario Bauza, Machito, Chico O'Farrill and Chano Pozo during the late swing era and first decade of bebop, Latin jazz is often labeled Afro-Cuban jazz and thought of as originating during the 1940s. But as important to Latin jazz as the convergence of Pozo and Dizzy Gillespie in the latter's big band, or the collaborations of Charlie Parker and Machito/Bauza, both in the 1940s, and arranger Johnny Richards' association with Stan Kenton's big band in the early 1950s, was Tizol's first tenure with Duke Ellington for over a decade and half starting in 1929.
The Puerto Rican-born Tizol (1900-1984) not only brought a facility on valve trombone that allowed Ellington to voice him with saxes and/or trumpets, he also brought his distinctive compositional skills to the Duke's orchestra. Those compositions, including but not limited to such jazz standards as "Caravan" and "Perdido," inspired Ellington to write arrangements in Latin jazz and even more exotic veins.
For Tizol wrote not just melodies and rhythms inspired by his Caribbean roots, but also had a penchant for the exotic (especially for his historical time) tunes and meters of North Africa and the Mid-East. The sensuous, undulating rhythms of "Pyramid" and "Bakiff" were just as, if not more, exotic and way out as Ellington's vaunted "jungle music."
For the concert, Turre assembled a basic septet featuring a front line of his and Ellington veteran Britt Woodman's trombones, Byron Stripling's trumpet and Frank Wess' alto sax or flute, with Stanley Cowell, piano, Andy Gonzalez, bass and Victor Lewis, drums, plus special guests. Remarkably, Turre and the other arrangers who contributed managed to capture much of the counterpoint, internal motion and exotic tonal colors of Ellington's big band Tizol charts in the small group.
On "Pyramid," mallet-dampened processional drums underpinned the twin leads of Woodman's open horn (playing one of Tizol's typically yearning, half-time melodic motifs) and Turre's wah-wah plunger countermelody. Stripling enlivened the mood with belligerent trumpet growls, only to revert to lyricism in reprising the melody on open horn, with embellishments from flute obligatos.
The band also played non-Latin Tizol numbers like the typically jaunty, swinging "Vagabond" and the jump novelty "You Can't Have Your Cake (And East It Too)," sung with light-hearted flair by Stripling. Violinst Regina Carter joined the band for the darkly romantic "Bakiff" and Akua Dixon sang "Lost in Meditation," another one of Tizol's trademark yearning, gracefully sinuous melodies. With Mongo Santamaria, the veteran conga player, joining in the second half, the band essayed Tizol's most Caribbean-flavored rhythmic works, including the sophisticated, two-melody balancing "Moon Over Cuba" and the anthemically Afro-Cuban "Congo Brava." The well-programmed and delightfully executed concert ended with a salsa-fied, Latin jazz take on Tizol's most familiar tune, "Caravan."
Note: When I talked to Turre after the concert, he was so pleased with the results (also disappointed that all the tunes rehearsed couldn't be played) that he said he hoped to find a way to record the music with the same musicians. Unfortunately, it is not the kind of project that might be picked up by Verve, his current label. Any suggestions?