Review: The Latin Jazz Pandemic Suite – CD
By Perry Tannenbaum
CD: The Latin Jazz Pandemic Suite – Gregg Gelb, leader, tenor saxophone; Stephen Anderson, piano; Andy Kleindienst, bass; Beverly Botsford, percussion; Ramon Ortiz, drums – 30:10
If you think about the makeup of a Latin jazz quintet, your expectations would likely include a pianist, a drummer, a conguero, an acoustic or electric bassist, and another soloing musician – on marimba or vibes if you’re looking for a tropical flavor, on trumpet if your taste runs to South-of-the-border salsa. The sound is easier to conjure: light, breezy, festive, or celebratory. Always joyous. So it’s almost redundant that tenor saxophonist Gregg Gelb and his group named themselves the La Fiesta Latin Jazz Quintet. By far more surprising for this quintet is their ambitious new project, composed by Gelb, that provides the main core – and the title – for the group’s second album, The Latin Jazz Pandemic Suite. Sunshine and celebration discarded in favor of morose ruminations on COVID-19?
No, that never quite happens in the new six-track collection, five of them forming the Suite. Yet a haze of lassitude, discomfort, or discontent hangs over the entire set – sheer jubilation never fully breaks out, even in the “Tiempo de Fiesta (Party Time)” finale. Millions of us have had many of the same thoughts, agonized in similar isolation, and experienced many of the same fears and frustrations. But however much we have experienced in common during our nearly two years apart, the global pandemic has done little to bring us together – and plenty to increase our divisions. Serving as a preamble to the Suite, Gelb’s first composition for La Fiesta during the pandemic, “Juntos De Nuevos (Together Again),” would likely be merrier and more anthemic if the togetherness were accomplished rather than merely yearned for – and if it extended beyond his quintet, which was “looking forward to when we would be together again and be able to play,” in the composer’s words.
“Juntos” starts with a lush rain-forest quietude, Stephen Anderson’s piano faintly dripping, Andy Kleindienst’s bass replicating a soft acoustic guitar, and Beverly Botsford’s exotic percussion clucking, ticking and moaning rather than pounding. The pounding arrives when drummer Ramon Ortiz switches away from his cymbals and rims to the heart of his drums, making a nice launchpad for the saxophonist’s brash entrance and the announcement of his virile theme, more like Sonny Rollins’ or John Coltrane’s concept of Latin jazz than Cal Tjader’s. Anderson’s soloing, on the other hand, is suppler, more apt to feature Latin rhythms as well as chords, yet able to layer on some McCoy Tyner gravitas as the pianist builds to peak moments. The rhythm section gets ample space here to show why Gelb missed them, Kleindienst’s airy bass solo leading into a more intense jam between Ortiz and Botsford before the leader returned with the theme. After repeating his melody, Gelb played on it briefly, bringing the track to an abrupt, invigorating halt. A zesty reunion.
None of the five parts of the Suite is nearly as long as “Juntos de Nuevos,” but hardly a beat separates the flow – none at all between parts 2 and 3. With shifting tempos and themes, Gelb’s Pandemic Suite acquires a cumulative heft, only let down in those two fused sections, “New Normal” and “Mucha Positiva,” where the quintet becomes a bit too literal, first the rhythm section and then the leader, in simulating the monotony and repetitiveness of isolation. The outside sections, “Quarantine Dance” and “Tiempo de Fiesta,” both find the right balance between the festive impulses of Latin jazz and the grim reality of COVID confinement. Sunshine dominates, occasionally dimmed. Introduced by a mildly domesticated Mongo Santamaria shuffle, “Quarantine” soars midway through its melody line before falling down and stomping with a jazz riff. All of the solos that follow from Gelb, Anderson, and Kleindiest ultimately tumble into that recurring riff. Unlike his arrangement on “Justos,” Gelb didn’t play on the melody when he returned with it, signing off abruptly after repeating one chorus, stomping his riff one last time with Anderson.
Gelb injects a little more Latin spice into his “Fiesta” riff, with a sax component all his own interspersed with emphatic punctuation from the rhythm section, so the composition sports a bit of hard-bop jauntiness a la Horace Silver, one of the two composers the Quintet covered in their eponymous 2016 debut album. Unadorned by this zippy sax riff, Anderson’s piano solo is energetic and inspired as ever, nicely complementing Gelb’s best blowing on this set. Percussion kicks in twice surrounding Gelb’s final solo, the last a rather chastened jam, pointedly slowed down to underscore that we cannot readily recover our carefree pre-pandemic sunniness just yet.
The penultimate piece in the Pandemic Suite, “The Sad Truth,” the ballad that it sorely needed: as Gelb’s liner notes tell us, “As March 2022, almost one million Americans have died from the virus. We still wait for it to end.” This is the saxophonist at his most soulful, invoking the gruff artistry of Dexter Gordon and Rollins. What I do wish for here is a composition that would have extended more than 16 bars – and solos that lengthened with it. Anderson enters ever so lightly and, abetted by Ortiz’s work, succeeds in making this ballad a Latin Jazz “Truth.” The pianist, in fact, seems to love this composition more than the composer, for he continues to lavish filigree upon it even after Gelb reprises the theme. Botsford asserts herself along with Anderson toward the very end of the arrangement, where the saxophone becomes slower and softer. That makes the sudden onset of the “Fiesta” finale explosive and satisfying.