The joi de vivre is palpable, though not unexpected, from the opening notes of Afro Bop Alliance’s Angel Eyes. But something is different now. Realization comes as quickly as the rhythm of a raid: It is in the pings and resplendent gong-like echoes of Victor Provost’s steel pans, which ding and dong and sing with bell-like tolling. Suddenly the saxophones sound more excited, just as the trumpet does; in fact the whole group, including its bassist and drummer join in the excited chatter as Mr. Provost’s pans sing a magnificat to the overall sound of Afro Bop Alliance.
The Alliance has always played music that is born of folkloric elements of Southern American countries, locked in happy collision with the jazz idiom. And the ensemble continues to make music today that is melodically and harmonically beautiful and rhythmically sophisticated. But on their 2011 release Una Más a recording which featured Dave Samuels, they were really a BIG BAND. Thus at other times and in various incarnations it might have been easy to have big band momentum. But wait a minute.
Founder and drummer Joe McCarthy is still the vital propellant that fires the engine of the band. This includes its turbines, so to speak, and these are pianist Harry Appelman, bassist Tom Baldwin, tenor saxophonist Luis Hernández, who actually plays a custom saxophone tuned to low C. Then there is alto saxophonist Vince Norman and trumpeter Tim Stanley and, of course Mr. McCarthy. And now there is the young Vince Provost, a native of the Virgin Islands. With the addition of Mr. Provost the sound of the ensemble has been lifted considerably. And this is one of the main reasons for the grandeur of Angel Eyes
If the vital energy comes from Joe McCarthy and the standing members of the group, on Angel Eyes the new shape of the sound comes from the astral nature of the steel pans. Not only that, Mr. Provost has also contributed three songs to this 2014 album. Naturally each of the charts: “Homenaje,” “Fête Antilles,” and “Minor Details” is built around his metallic voice. But the sonic architecture of the songs is unique too. There is the conversation between his instrument and the others in the band. Rather the rich tonal textures and timbre of the pans seem to ring out like distant, but very audible church-bells on the main street in a rather colourful and cultured town.
Naturally the accents on these charts have a dictinctly Caribbean flavour enriched by the frolicking rhythms of the sea as well as the wonderful Afro-Caribbean influences of the music of the islands. “Homenaje” and “Fête Antilles” combine the vigor of boperation with this Afro-Caribbean flavour. “Minor Details” rocks with churchy fervor. It is not intended of course, to be dismissive of the other material on this recording. The joropo, “Three for Juju” and the son-cha-cha-cha, “Ziggy the Crooner” are magnificent as is “The Jinx” and the brilliantly rendered “Nature Boy.” Sara Jones’ vocals are elementally sad, but as beautiful as the string quartet commandeered by Paula McCarthy. There is a superb clarinet contribution from Paquito D’Rivera. But the last word on almost everything must go to percussionist Roberto Quintero, whose incessant and mighty chatter with Joe McCarthy is the defining energy that makes all the difference to the rhythmic intensity of this recording.
Track Listing: 1. The Jinx; 2. Three for Juju; 3. Ziggy the Crooner; 4. Barbara; 5. Homenaje; 6. Nature Boy; 7. Inner Urge; 8. Fête Antilles; 9. Angel Eyes; 10. This is for Albert; 11. Minor Details.
Personnel: Joe McCarthy: drums, percussion, congas on # 8; Roberto Quintero: congas, percussion; Harry Appelman: piano; Tom Baldwin: bass; Victor Provost: steel pans, “engine room” on # 5 and 11, vocals on #11; Luis Hernández: tenor sax; Vince Norman: alto sax; Tim Stanley: trumpet; Sara Jones: vocals on # 6 and 11; Paula McCarthy: violin/concertmaster and Suzanne Orban: principal cello, with The St. Claire Chamber Strings on # 6. Special guest: Paquito D’ Rivera clarinet on # 5.