Pianists who embark on Cuban music projects usually present them as traditional or modern, but rarely both. Mike Eckroth does both on his extraordinary album Piano and Rhythm. Extraordinary music indeed from an extraordinary musician. This is Cuban music as you rarely heard before, by a compulsive free-spirited pianist. Had I not already known what I was listening to before I put it in my CD player; had I been doing a blindfold test I might have guessed that this was a classic descarga taking place at a corner-club in Old Havana, with a certain famous pianist guiding the fortunes of master conguero, bongosero and timbalero together with a flute thrown in. That’s how fine an album this is. But that’s not all; it’s just the first part. In a burst of creativity, emulating the great Frank Emilio Flynn, perhaps, Mike Eckroth has added a second part to the album: four original compositions melding the Afro-Cuban rhythms with those of jazz.
Wherever you turn you will encounter a human breadth and richness that is far removed from the often chilly aristocracy of more celebrated compatriots. This is so much what the Cuban music of Cuba is all about: spontaneous, where musicians challenge each other to give the most of themselves yet are generous to a fault. Piano and Rhythm is such a record because Mike Eckroth is that kind of musician and because he has gathered around him musicians – irrespective of origin – who engage in the process in a gentle, yielding manner but also with an equal sense of folksy joie de vivre. You get this absolutely from the opening salvo, “El Plato Roto” and right up to a masterful re-imagining of Bud Powell’s iconic “Un Poco Loco”. And then you get it from Mike Eckroth’s own compositions that form the ‘B’ side of this wonderful CD.
What a glorious sound Mike Eckroth makes. He captures the true spirit of the music with exquisite dynamics and subtle expression that suggests the wisdom of a much older musician. This speaks to Mike Eckroth’s erudition, to his evolution into a modern renaissance musician with the kind of insights into the music that will surprise you. There are details of touch, of the manner in which notes, phrases and melodic lines are brought to life with vivacious readings of standard material as well as new repertoire. Colouristic possibilities are opened up and this is coupled with a propulsion that gives the music a true one-of-a-kind feel. Listen to Arsenio Rodriguez’s “Guaragüi” and you will hear what I mean.
With technical wizardry like this and the wisdom to back it up it is no wonder that Mr. Eckroth has attracted a stellar cast of musicians from Ralph Irizarry, Pedro Martinez, Andy González, José Clausell, Itai Kriss and Mauricio Herrera, and a constellation of others to make this celebration of music even more fabulous. This is truly a transcendental album that transports you to a place that you will never want to leave. Too bad it ends short of an hour. But knowing how enterprising a musician that Mike Eckroth is, it is not presumptuous on my part to expect more in the near future. In fact, I can almost smell something delicious brewing already…
Track List: El Plato Roto; Western Airlines; Guaragüi; Atomo Musical; Un Poco Loco; Franklin’s Riff; Mulato Blanco; Soft Danzón; Pants de Leon.
Personnel: Mike Eckroth: piano; Ralph Irizarry: timbales; Nelson González: tres; Pedro Martinez: congas; Ruben Rodriguez: baby bass; Andy González: baby bass; Eddy Zervigón: flute; Abraham Rodriguez: vocals; Jerry Madera: baby bass; José Clausell: timbales; Christian Rivera: congas; Pepe Espinoza: congas; Mauricio Herrera: congas; Joel Mateo: drums; Alex “Apolo” Ayala: bass; Filipe Fournier: vibraphone; Itai Kriss: flute.