One aspect of John Santos’ music that sets him apart from many artists in the Latin realm is the depth of its spiritual consciousness. This is almost immediately palpable on the album Filosofía Caribeña Vol. 2 by the John Santos Sextet.
Of course, it is no small accident that the first track on the record is the superb elegy to the late alum, “Rev” Ron Stallings, simply entitled “Mr. Stallings”. The legendary tenor saxophonist was a member of Mr. Santos’ well-known Machete Ensemble and recorded with him in the early part of the 2000s—one of several Afro-Caribbean projects that the Rev. graced after a trip to Cuba in 1997. This chart is an auspicious beginning to what is a follow-up to Mr. Santos’ landmark album Filosofía Caribeña Vol. 1 in 2011. If that album was a significant addition to the literature of Afro-Caribbean music, Vol 2 is a lot more than that: It seems to open a proverbial portal into the realm of music where the musics of three continents collide, where minds and hearts, and where the poetics and intellect of musical art meets. Adding a choral element to the instrumental music that is richer and more complex than much music today, Vol 2 might also be seen as nestling cheek-by-jowl with some of the finer albums by both African, Caribbean and American (especially the jazz music of New Orleans) griot musicians; which to say the historical role that music from those regions has played in the world of today. The binding glue of course is in the writing/programmatic sequences, interspersed throughout the album, appearing to bring influences from the European dance music influences from which much Afro-American and Afro Caribbean music is culled.
This is a big step forward by The John Santos Sextet and speaks to the colossal influence that Mr. Santos could soon become in contemporary music. While it may be early yet to compare him to someone such as the great Cuban Chucho Valdés, Mr. Santos appears to have made an auspicious entry into a guild of musicians considered important enough to be thought of as the éminence grise of contemporary Afro-Caribbean music. This is because of a multiplicity of reasons. First and foremost Mr. Santos’ music wells up from his deep heart and soul and it cascades through his enormous intellect in the form of songs and suites that characterize this music. Here, on this album, Mr. Santos also forges a powerful musical collective—driven by the countless and exotic and colours of his percussive hands and fingers—which includes flutist and sometimes pianist Dr. John Calloway and the ever-sensitive and melodic bassist Saúl Sierra. The results of this composer/arranger/performer collective are immediately evident. The poignant moments that are exchanged by the radiant pings of stick on a variety of cymbals, cowbells and an assortment of percussion and the guttural utterings of bass, united by minor chords strung out like necklaces by the piano on the music of “Mr. Stallings” and “Que Sabroso”. On the latter chart the elasticity of the bass solo, with notes that echo and dally in the deliciously lower register is quite magnificent.
“Las Hermanas Mirabal” is typical of the great storytelling quality of this album. This has much to do with the elemental ache in the voice of Jerry Medina as he makes his way through the wake-like lyric. But it is the manner in which the instruments wend their way through the vocal, like a New Orleans funeral first wending their way through the narrow streets, as if on their weary way to a burial ground. Here Jerry González’s forlorn flugelhorn, with its melancholic manner entwines with Medina’s voice as part of an ensemble. Then, although the story is still sad, as if after the burial, things take a brighter turn to celebrate the life of the characters in the narrative. Here Mr. González remains contrite and mournful, yet harks to a sense of grasping at the impending liberation of the souls of the characters. All of this as the merengue rocks the (Afro-Caribbean-Afro American) funeral procession swings and sashays its way back to the “present reality” of the remarkable song. Jerry González returns—this time on trumpet—to give “Cuando Del Africa Salí” its very special character as he sings his way through the solo sequence almost as if he were singing a tragic aria.
This fabulous union of choral and instrumental elements lends an air of shimmering excellence throughout the album. Importantly the lyric element of the vocals is swathed in a thick stew of rap, creole, Lucumí, Spanish and English, all of which seems to come together in a most tasteful musical stew. The most outstanding examples of the choral gymnastics is palpable in the soaring introduction of “Cuando Del Africa Salí,” a roaring waterfall of a song that cascades into a rushing river of vocalastics and instruments spliced together by the colourful voices of the excited thunder and lightning of the percussion that leads seamlessly into segues by trumpet, piano, bass and drums. Then there is a cowl of almost monastic restraint about some of the music. It is as if in the expended of vocal, the music actually levitates to a rarified plane. This wonderful aspect of the music runs throughout what seems like an extended suite from “Ayití (Haití)” to the earthy atmosphere of “Domingo Yaucano”.
The fusion of Afro-Caribbean and the Afro-American jazz metaphor—especially in the superb rushes and vaunted arpeggios of Dr. Calloway’s flute—and European, especially evident in the rococo elements of pianism adds an altogether new element that may not have been explored in Vol. 1. The almost formal dance elements that add a bright and colourful dimension to the music and much of this has to do with the about face from extended improvisation to the simple danceable forms of music from “Domingo Yaucano” with its sudden rushes of blood from head to feet in the spectacularly subtle seashell notes emanating from the assortment played by the master Steve Turre, who also switches instruments to fill the air with his forlorn muted trombone ramblings. There is a wonderful rapport between Mr. Turre’s trombone and the voices of the choral group as the song fades into the distance. And there is also a wonderful staccato solo of the flute and the three-way counterpoint between the pulsating flute of Orlando “Maraca” Valle and Mr. Sierra’s bass and percussion of John Santos, as well as the call and response between voices and instruments in “Bronze Y Oro,” until Steve Turre bring the music home with John Santos and company at the soaring end of the album when “Por Tu Hijos” finally comes to a close.
It might not be so bold to suggest that this remarkable musical journey by the John Santos Sextet may even be a rich addition to the language of music and not simply its significantly catalogue of literature. And for this the music heart and mind of John Santos deserves special mention.
Tracks: Mr. Stallings; Que Sabroso (How Tasty); Las Hermanas Mirabal (The Mirabal Sisters); El Buen Camino The Good Path; Ayití (Haití); Cuando Del Africa Salí (Whwn I Left Africa); Sin Ti No Hay Tú (There’s No You Without You); Domingo Yaucano; Bronze Y Oro (Bronze and Gold); Por Tus Hijos (For Your Children).
Personnel: Dr. John Calloway: piano (1, 10), flute (3 – 5, 7), alto flute, coro (8), composer, arranger; Melecio Magdaluyo: tenor saxophone (1 – 5, 7), alto saxophone (10), flute (8), coro (7); Saúl Sierra: acoustic bass (1, 2, 5, 7), electric bass (3), baby bass (4, 6, 8, 9 10), composer, arranger; Marco Díaz: trumpet (1, 10), piano (2 – 5, 8), composer, arranger; David Flores: drums (1 – 4, 7) set; John Santos: chékere (1, 3, 5, 9), percussion (1, 3, 4, 5, 8), gong (1,), Balafón (1), bell (1, 4, 8, 10), cluster bells (8), gankoguis (1), tumbadores (2, 4, 5, 9), tambora (3), claves (2), campana (2, 3, 5, 7), bongos (2, 5, 7), maracas (2, 5), güiro (4), udu (4), barriles (5, 6), caxixi (5, 6, 8), quijada (5), ocean drum (5), vodun drums (5), quinto (6), cajón (6), guacharo (7, 10), waterphone (8), nature effects (8), lead voice (1), coro (2, 3, 5 – 10), composer; Rico Pabon: spoken word (2), coro (2, 3, 5 – 10), Jerry Medina: lead voice (2, 7), trumpet (2, 7); Jerry González: flugelhorn (3), trumpet (7), Sandy Pérez: bonko (6), iyá (batá) (6, 9), yanoto (Arará) (6), caya (9), quinto (9), Luis Cancino: tumbadores, campanas (Bricamo), cajón, guegue, okoto (Arará) (6); Iluminado Maldonado: lead and duo vocals, claves (6); Quique Dávila: accordion (7); Juan Gutiérrez: barril, lead voice (8), pandereta (requinto) (10); Alex Lasalle: lead voice (5), barril (primo) (8), pandereta (10); Héctor Lugo: barril (8), pandereta (10); Anna Pérez: lead voice (6, 8); Orestes Vilató: timbales (6); Steve Turre: trombone (8, 10), seashells (8); Orlando “Maraca” Valle: flute (9); Orlando Torriente: lead voice (10); Sandra García Rivera: coro( 2, 3, 5 – 10); Julia Gutiérrez Rivera: coro (8); Elena Pinderhughes: coro (2, 6, 7, 9, 10); Ismael Rodríguez: coro (2, 6, 7, 9, 10); José Luis Gómez: coro (2, 6, 7, 9, 10) Willie Ludwig: coro (3, 5, 10).
John Santos on the Web: johnsantos.com
Label: Machete Records | Release date: May 2013
Extended Review by: Raul da Gama