Aguabella – Baker Gateway to Death Valley

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Take away the soul from a body and there is nothing left of it. This could easily have been the way that Aguabella Latin Jazz Band went when its heart and soul, Francisco Aguabella died in 2010.

But that would have meant that the surviving seven members of Aguabella, as the band has come to be known, had little love for their mentor. Determined to pay him tribute the band released Nuestra Era, a rhapsodic album in 2011. They have followed that album with a glorious sophomore record, Baker-Gateway to Death Valley; here is where the voice of the band has begun to emerge without losing the edge that Francisco Aguabella left them with. This is probably the first musical voyage that the band has undertaken without the great Cuban-born percussionist and they have emerged with an extraordinary story to tell. Moreover, the band has more nuances in the colours and textures they bring to the music.

In a sense Aguabella is now a tighter outfit, but it is also paradoxically more loose and indolent. The re-imagination of Thelonious Monk’s “Bemsha Swing” has every bit of proof that the band is on a roll. The sparse playing of the horns is a fine example of the beautifully laconic manner in which the band is able to strike up a swinging, shuffling Latin rhythm while daubing this with the idiom of jazz. There is sense of understanding not only of Monk’s phenomenal sonic architecture, but also a brave sense of how this might be de-constructed and rebuilt and being aligned to Monk as well as giving it a magnificent new cha cha chá groove. This of course radically changes the colours of the song, but that is quite alright. Aguabella play Monk the way Monk would surely have liked it—in a Latin groove.

This then leads to the matter of the writing on this album. While this aspect of Nuestra era was a matter of finding their level, the writing here is of a distinctly superior nature. Special mention needs to be made of “Our Destiny Now” a wonderfully-constructed piece which is also spectacularly painted from a beautiful palette of colours. Moreover, the tonal textures of the horns and the percussion work in extraordinary contrasts within each section as well as across each other. The same could be said of the brooding narrative of “Baker-Gateway to Death Valley,” which is structurally one of the finest songs on the record as well as one that is exquisitely coloured and subtly shaded, especially by the extraordinary work by the trumpeter Ron Stout.

Which brings attention to the individual players: All of the members of Aguabella are spectacular in technique with unbridled virtuosity. Bryan Velasco has killer tumbao; Benn Clatworthy is bold and brazen and has a huge, moist sound. The percussionists, Christian Moraga and Jorge Carbonell complement each other with their extraordinary sense of anticipation and knowledge of where each one is. Together the two are more than just drummer and conguero, but combine to paint a wonderful sonic canvas on which the rest of the band can daub their own colours. The trombonist, Joey Sellers plays with a great deal of empathy and style, using growls and smears to intersperse his passages with a great deal of humour. Perhaps the most exciting member of the band is bassist Brian J Wright, who not only keeps the rhythmic swing locked in, but is also able to play with harmonic freedom as well as remarkable melodicism thereby creating dense colours and textures and providing an unique voice to the band, of whom much more is expected and indeed, from whom more will come very shortly. Surely Francisco Aguabella would have been proud.

Tracks: Taxi Terry; The Boxer; Blues for Gaza; La Curandera Negrita; Bemsha Swing; Our Destiny Now; Baker-Gateway to Death Valley; Disaster in Barcelona.

Personnel: Ron Stout: trumpet; Benn Clatworthy: tenor and soprano saxophones; Joey Sellers: trombone; Bryan Velasco; Brian J Wright: bass; Christian Moraga: congas and bongos; Jorge Carbonell: drums and timbales.

Benn Clatworthy – Official Website: www.bennclatworthy.com

Label: Independent Release

Release date: September 2012

Reviewed by: Raul da Gama