Johnny Conga has given the impression that he is an exceptionally quiet musician, releasing one album, Breaking Skin in 2009 and now, Oye!. In reality, however, he has a long career spanning 45 years.
Unfortunately, though, his reputation among the cognoscenti and fans of Latin Jazz and its constituent idioms must rest on the heritage of these two albums. His 2009 release was a revelation: For here was a percussionist whose skill and virtuosity equalled if not exceeded most of the conga players and certainly rivalled some of the percussionists playing today. Three years after that episode Conga releases his follow-up. How does this measure up to that first, explosively beautiful album? Oye! is a more sophisticated album from one of the most talented percussionists playing today. In fact if anything it is an infinitely more musical record; one in which Mr. Conga has applied all of his skill, virtuosity and intellect.
Those are some characteristics Johnny Conga has in plenty. The proof is first in the repertoire that Mr. Conga has selected for this album. Wayne Shorter has a Latin side and the trombonist, Conrad Herwig recorded a marvellous album transcribing some of Mr. Shorter’s classic charts. However Mr. Conga has also excelled at a task few would have dared to undertake: he has made a hypnotic and majestic transcription of Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints”. The chart has a certain menace to it when played on the saxophone as it is anyone’s guess whose footprints Mr. Shorter speaks of; on the other hand these could be perceived as a generational thing as Mr. Shorter speaks of the musical ancestors with deep and ponderous respect. And this is exactly how Mr. Conga treats this classic chart. Another chart that is simply wonderful is one of Django Reinhardt lesser-known charts for which Tony Bennett famously wrote the lyrics. While Mr. Bennett treated the song as a wistful ballad, Johnny Conga infuses the chart with a bustling joy. This is typical of Mr. Conga’s music and it is evident on the two solo performances on this record.
“Mullaly Park-Bronx Rumba” and “Rumba y Guarapachangeo” are among the finest displays of rhythmic coloration applied to the harmonic textures of song. The fact is there are probably several overdubs on both tracks; yet despite this device, Mr. Conga has succeeded in pulling off the performance of his life. In fact on the basis of these two charts alone Mr. Conga can claim to be among the top conga players outside of Latin America. Here it is certain that Johnny Conga has absorbed the sound and substance of his spiritual ancestors with a great deal of depth. In fact it would not be a fallacy to claim to hear Tata Güines in his playing as Mr. Conga is one of the most melodic and musical players around. For rhythmic muscularity Mr. Conga seems to have absorbed the angularity of Patato Valdés and on timbales, who can escape the influence of Tito Puente?
Still Johnny Conga has retained a singular voice and this may be heard in his tender tribute to Cal Tjader on “Mambo for Tjader”. Mr. Conga’s originality may also be borne out by his sophisticated cha cha chá blues, “Chablue”. These two charts might easily point in the direction of Johnny Conga’s next venture: an album of originals, perhaps, for certainly the time has come for Johnny Conga to give expression to the prompts of his deep and excited soul.
Tracks: Cold Duck Time; Mambo Diablo; Sidewinder; Mullaly Park-Bronx Rumba; Chablue; Footprints; Quiet Stroll; Rumba Y Guarapachangeo; All For You; Mambo For Tjader.
Personnel: Mario Marrero: piano, bass (2, 3, 5, 7, 10); Fred Hoadley: piano (1, 6); Sammy Alamillo: drums (1, 6); Rick Houle: bass (1, 6); Steve Mostovoy: trumpet (1, 2, 3, 5, 6); Nathaniel Paul: saxophones, flute (1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 10); Joe Cano: guitar (9); Julio Jauregui: piano, synth bass (9); Johnny Conga: congas, bongos, timbales, vibraphone, cajón, guagua, clave, cowbell, guiro, vocals.
Johnny Conga on the Web: www.facebook.com/JohnnyConga
Label: Independent Release
Release date: November 2012
Reviewed by: Raul da Gama