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The John Santos Sextet & Friends: Vieja Escuela



The John Santos Sextet & Friends
L to R: John Santos, Dr. John Calloway, Saul Sierra, Marco Díaz, David Flores, Charlie Gurke.

Despite Vieja Escuela being the title of this superb, albeit shortish album it is almost abhorrent to consider John Santos as being ‘old school’. A traditionalist [in the best sense of the term] is a better way to describe the glow of the blazing comet that is his remarkable musicianship. Mr Santos’ music is profoundly rooted in reflective pedagogy and inspired performances, and he has a long career together with and a deep and celebrated oeuvre to prove it. So exactly what is Mr Santos trying to achieve with the release of this album?

Firstly, Vieja Escuela is a glowing tribute to the Afro-Cuban – or, more correctly – the Afro-Caribbean tradition. More importantly Mr Santos is paying due homage to a few of the great contributors in this tradition, and to the music and dance forms with which honoured their art. Perhaps most importantly this music is the best sign that Mr Santos acknowledges that tradition is a prescient reality, but it has greater meaning if it doesn’t imprison those who pay homage to it. In other words, for tradition to be most meaningful its practitioners must break its shackles and innovate.

The John Santos Sextet & Friends: Vieja Escuela
The John Santos Sextet & Friends: Vieja Escuela

And this is the inner dynamic of Mr Santos’ music. He takes elements that are time honoured and from them chisels something defiantly provocative and uniquely beautiful. Positioning himself in creative conflict of age-old protocols about how Afro-Caribbean music ought to work or sound, Mr Santos then throws overboard melodic, structural, and harmonic hooks that have become blunted from overuse and builds on what might – or might not be left. Remarkably, this instinctive radicalism has endeared Mr Santos to the scholars, eminent practitioners, and listeners – both the curious and the discerning.

In seven rhythmically breathtaking charts The John Santos Sextet & Friends [as this remarkable musical entourage is called] the historian and percussionist colourist does full justice to this fulsome elegant and compelling musical tradition. Artists express deep familiarity with the musical tradition through eloquent performances in ensemble and soli. The performances on each of the songs is unforced and lively. Interpretations of the arrangements are idiomatic, with an emphasis on expressing the intersecting melodic and harmonic lines with uncommon clarity. Throughout, of course, the rippling rhythmic groove is the glue and Mr Santos provides the proverbial heat to bind everything together.

The legendary spirit of the sonero reigns supreme and propels the more rhythmically vivid pieces – such as the opening rumba – Esta Rumba Sí – and the gloriously elegant danzón Lago Xochimilco that follows. The boleros – Amor Pa Tí and Profecía highlight the unprecedented richness of the art-form through use of daring, emotionally-laden and adventurous instrumental combinations that form liquid partnerships with vocalists and choral support. On No Pierdas la Maña the son montuno is king. Best of all, on That Walk 2 and with the recitation by Rico Pabón and the spectral appearance of the legendary Jerry González, we catch a vivid glimpse of the powerful tributaries that unite to form the most enduring aspects of a river that gushes forth from the musical continuum.

This recording, through its instrumental and choral aspects represents how a festal celebration – often represented by the timeless comparsa – sounds today. The beautifully unfettered performances enhance the sense of occasion as The John Santos Sextet & Friends adopt their own personal and strikingly vivid approach to the tradition and the music with which they have revolutionised it all.  

Deo gratis…

Music – 1: Esta Rumba Sí; 2: Lago Xochimilco; 3: Amor Pa Tí; 4: No Pierdas la Maña; 5: Profecía; 6: That Walk 2; 7: Cholo.

Musicians – Dr John Calloway: flute [2, 4] and keyboard [7]; Marco Díaz: piano [1 – 6] and trumpet [4, 7]; David Flores: clave [1], katá [1], bells [1], snare drum [5] and drums [1, 2, 4, 6, 7]; Charlie Gurke: alto saxophone [4] and baritone saxophone [5]; Melecio Magdaluyo: soprano saxophone [2] and tenor saxophone [7]; John Santos: cajón [1], quinto [1], chekere [1, 3. 6], tumbadora [2 – 7], batá – okónkolo, iyá [4], güiro [2, 4], bongó [4], maracas [3, 5], bombo [3, 6], quijada [4], clave [3, 4, 6], cymbals [5], bell [4], windchimes [3], duo voz [4], and coro [1, 3, 4, 6]; Saul Sierra: contrabass [1 – 3, 5, 6], baby bass [4] and electric bass [7]. Special Guests – Ernesto Oviedo: lead voice [3, 4]; Orestes Vilató: bongó [3, 5]; Jerry González: trumpet [6] Raúl de la Caridad Gonzalez Brito: tumbadora [1]; Willie Ludwig: lead voice [1, 4] and coro [1]; Anthony Blea: violins [2]; Rico Pabón: spoken word [6] and coro [6]; José Roberto Hernández: coro [3, 4] and lead voice on outro [3]; Fernanda Bustamante: violin [3] and coro [3]; Sandra García Rivera: coro [1, 6]; Ismael Rodríguez: coro [6]; Christelle Durandy: coro [4]; Elena Pinderhughes: coro [6]; José Luis Gómez: coro [6].

Released – 2024
Label – Machete Records [M214]
Runtime 38:25

Based in Milton, Ontario, Canada, Raul is a poet, musician and an accomplished critic whose profound analysis is reinforced by his deep understanding of music, technically as well as historically.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. John Santos

    Mar 17, 2024 at 11:15 pm

    MILLONES DE GRACIAS, como siempre, por tus observaciones profundas Raul!!!!!

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