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Zaccai Curtis: Cubop Lives!



Pianist, Arranger, Bandleader Zaccai Curtis. Photo credit: Adrian Montanez
Pianist, Arranger, Bandleader Zaccai Curtis. Photo credit: Adrian Montanez

Although he does not say it outright – in his brief note to his album Cubop Lives!Zaccai Curtis rightly references both Dizzy Gillespie and Chano Pozo while referring to the term ‘Cubop,’ that magical, mystical collision between Afro-Cuban and Afro-American rhythms, and he is historically correct.

Indeed, he goes even further in pointing out that the intrepid George Russell may have stolen a march over the two legendary [Cuban and American] musicians mentioned above. Mr Russell’s Cubana-Be, Cubana-Bop [1946] did, indeed precede two of the most iconic examples of ‘Cubop’: Manteca and Tin-Tin Deo [1947].

Zaccai Curtis: Cubop Lives! [album cover]
Zaccai Curtis: Cubop Lives! [album cover]

The latter songs were part of one of the most spectacular albums. The Original Mambo Kings – featuring Machito and His All-Stars, Chico O’Farrill, Charlie Parker, Flip Phillips and more… This compilation was entitled An Introduction to Afro-Cubop [1948 – 1954]. The original album [with Manteca and Tin-Tin Deo] was released by the doyen of producers, Norman Granz on his Verve label. [This compilation was released in 1993].

While Mr Curtis evokes the halcyon days of ‘Cubop’ on this remarkable recording, what is noteworthy is the rippling, Minor Holiday by Kenny Drew rhythmic sauciness, of such Bebop classics as Dizzy Gillespie’s Woody’n You, Moose The Mooche, by Charlie Parker, Cuban Fantasy by Ray Bryant and 52nd Street Theme by Thelonious Monk [rarely is a full version of the song played, as it is here].

But that’s not all. The recording boasts superb interpretations of Jazzin’ by the legendary Hilton Ruiz, Contour by Kenny Dorham, and a sensational version [in clave] of Someday My Prince Will Come by the inimitable Frank Churchill.

Some may argue that the apogee of this recording is [what feels like] the suite of songs by Noro Morales beginning with Maria Cervantes, Oye Men and concluding with Stromboli. However, to my mind it is the magical interiorization of the idiom Afro-Cubop by Mr Curtis. No doubt he is brilliantly served by his brother, bassist Luques Curtis whose tenured involvement with the inimitable Eddie Palmieri lights up the music.

The rumbling bass-playing Curtis is a perfect complement whether playing in ensemble or in his soli. Afro-Cuban percussion provided by timbalero Willie Martínez III, conguero Camilo Molina and bongosero Reinaldo DeJesús is spectacular as well.

However, to my mind the most significant highlight of this recording is the level of Mr Curtis’ erudition with regard to the Afro-Cuban/Afro-American musical continuum and his rather prominent place in it, which despite his age is something truly remarkable. The pianist is truly an artist of the highest order.

Moreover, he is a fine composer in the idiom and as a performer his rippling ‘Cubop’ indentations are built – song after song – in a masterful manner. His music has a cinematic quality, launching into broodingly percussive rumbling grooves, before handing over the music to individual soloists to take each song and swing it en clave.

The song Earl – a tribute to Bud Powell, no less – blasts the recording right out of the gate and into the stratosphere. Finally, the fact that every song on Cubop Lives! is orchestrated by the pianist is further proof that Zaccai Curtis is on another – rarefied – artistic level altogether.

Deo gratis…

youtube playlist – zaccai curtis: cubop lives!

Music – 1. Earl; 2. Black Rice; 3. 52nd Street Theme; 4. When I Fall in Love; 5. Cuban Fantasy; 6. Woody’n You; 7. Someday My Prince Will Come; 8. Let’s Do It Again; 9. Jazzin’; 10. Maria Cervantes; 11. Oye Men; 12. Stromboli; 13: Rumbambola; 14. Maple Leaf Rag; 15. Contour; 16. Minor’s Holiday; 17. Moose the Mooche.

Musicians – Zaccai Curtis: piano; Luques Curtis: bass; Willie Martínez III: timbales; Camilo Molina: congas and pandeiro; Reinaldo DeJesús: bongos, chekere and guiro.

Released – 2024
Label – Truth Revolution Records [TRRC 072]
Runtime – 1:12:19

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.

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