Primary Instrument: Bass
The alluring melodies, engaging harmonies and insinuating rhythms of Brazil permeate this very pleasing ZOHO debut by Mexico-born bassist-composer-arranger Gabriel Espinosa. And yet, lurking beneath the soothing surface of these buoyant tunes is a profound depth of real-deal jazz expression presented by an international all-star cast of world class players and improvisers including Brazilian trumpeter Claudio Roditi, Swiss alto sax burner George Robert, Brazilian pianist Helio Alves, Brazilian guitarist Romero Lubambo, Israeli clarinetist Anat Cohen, Brazilian drummer Adriano Santos, Mexico-born drumming sensation Antonio Sanchez, Brazilian percussion player Jacinto Macedo, vocalists Darmon Meader and Kim Nazarian of the New York Voices and singer-composer Alison Wedding.
A native of Merida, the capital of the Mexican state of Yucatan, Espinosa grew up absorbing the sounds of the bossa nova movement that swept the United States and Mexico in the early 1960s. “I remember being 14 years old, listening to those great Brazilian players who would come through Merida on their tours. And I was like, Wow! That music is so interesting, so nice. I really fell in love with it as a teenager and since then I’ve really been close to that kind of music.”
A graduate of Central College in Pella, Iowa, Espinosa attended the Berklee College of Music in Boston, where he received a diploma in arranging. He later received his masters degree in jazz studies in 1995 at the University of North Texas, and the following year came full circle back to Central College, where he has been director of Jazz Studies for the past 13 years. Throughout his career as an educator and player (he’s recorded three CDs since 2000 with the Latin band Ashanti), Espinosa has put a premium on being a composer-arranger rather than showcasing his own bass chops. “There’s no such a thing like that here,” he laughs about the prospect of putting out a “bass hero” project. Indeed, the music heard on From Yucatan to Rio is purely about the music -- the beautiful blend between the horns, the affecting, lyrical quality heard on each tune. “I see myself more like a composer and an arranger than a soloist,” Espinosa continues. “I was always more in love with writing music and arranging the music.”
The opener, Gabriel’s arrangement of the popular Carlos Jobim composition “Agua de Beber” features guest vocalists Darmon Meader and Kim Nazarian of the New York Voices. Alison Wedding, who also appears on the buoyant Jobim track, was a colleague of Espinosa’s in the early 90s during their years together at the University of North Texas.
On “Klavier Latino”, Espinosa introduces a Bach-like bit of counterpoint before settling into the luxurious groove. George Robert, a veteran alto player from Switzerland who has recorded over 20 albums and worked with such U.S. jazz artists as Kenny Barron, Tom Harrell, Randy Brecker and Clark Terry, solos with rare potency here.
“LP 07” is named for the London-Paris trip that Espinosa made with his band in 2007. “Right after we got back from that tour, I went to the piano and wrote that piece,” he says. “So while London and Paris provided the inspiration, it still has the Latin flavor.”
The poignant lament “We’ve Come Undone” showcases Wedding, who sets a somber mood with her hauntingly beautiful delivery on her own evocative piece. “She has a beautiful voice, she can scat, she can write,” says Espinosa.. “People are not really aware of her yet, but I keep telling her, Alison, this is your year!”
The lively “Nuevos Horizontes” is an example where all the stellar soloists pass the ball around in quick fashion, with Alves, Roditi, Robert and special guest Anat Cohen each making concise but killing statements along the way. “It’s the typical 6/8 that we use in Yucatan which we call it jarana,” explains Espinosa. “Basically, it’s a similar 6/8 groove that all the South Americans use, but with just a little bit different flavor. For me, that’s the most Yucatecan piece on the album.” Sanchez fuels the track with his bristling energy and precision playing on the kit while pianist Alves enlivens the proceedings with his seasoned touch and accompanist’s ear. “The reason for that title,” continues Gabriel, “is that’s what this CD basically means for me. These are new horizons that I’m trying to pursue in my music with these marvelous players.”
“Morning Breeze” captures the easy vibe of another beautiful day in paradise. As Espinosa explains, “between my stints at Berklee and North Texas I had the opportunity to live for seven years in Cancun. This tune reminds me of the morning breeze that you experience in the Caribbean. So it’s a kind of mellow, romantic piece.” Roditi¹s lyrical, burnished-toned flugelhorn solo here is delivered with dramatic flair.
“Azul y Negro” again features the natural blend of Roditi’s trumpet and Robert’s alto sax on the frontline, while the brisk samba “Remain” is sung with vibrant scat energy by Wedding, who also composed the piece. Espinosa’s “Maria”, a beautiful, introspective ballad vehicle for Claudio, is underscored by Helio’s shimmering piano, Lubambo’s alluring comping, Sanchez’s supple drumming and Gabriel’s subtle groove. Robert blends nicely with Claudio on the bridge to this soothing number before branching out on a pungent, fleet-fingered solo. Lubambo adds a stunning nylon string solo of his own to this gentle, lyrical offering. The collection closes on a surging note with “Huracan”, the driving samba-fueled groover that is characterized by tight, Messengers-like chemistry on the frontline. Alves turns in his most stirring piano solo of the date on this uptempo workout.
Produced and arranged by Gabriel Espinosa. Recorded and mixed by Michael Brorby at Acoustic Recording, Brooklyn, NY, in November 2008. Mastered by Michael Macdonald. Gabriel Espinosa photography by Off The Square. Package design: Al Gold. Executive producer: Joachim “Jochen” Becker.