Paul Carlon – La Rumba is a Lovesome Thing: A Tribute to Billy Strayhorn

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What on earth would Billy Strayhorn think of La Rumba is a Lovesome Thing? It is, after all, a somewhat irreverent tribute—the music is relocated from its original big band setting into the Latin realm—to the maestro who singlehandedly transformed the sound and spirit of The Duke Ellington Orchestra for a quarter of a century, from 1942 until his death in 1967.

Perhaps he might have been secretly happy to listen to a spectacular record; one that is brilliantly performed by a small band of brass, reeds and woodwinds, superbly orchestrated by its leader Paul Carlon, features beautiful brooding vocals by sensuous, husky-voiced chanteuse, Christelle Durandy, star turns by Latin percussion colourists Pedrito Pablo Martínez, Wilson “Chembo” Corniel and Obanilú Iré, a drummer and bassist from Mr. Carlon’s other fantastic Latin-Jazz band, Grupo Los Santos in the flesh and dancing spirit of William “Beaver” Bausch and the little powerhouse, Dave Ambrosio.

Most of the significant touchstones of Mr. Strayhorn’s great repertoire are featured on the record, or as many as can fit on a single disc and each is performed with a surprise and a delightful twist. “Take The ‘A’ Train” features an Afro-Cuban Santeria chant to the god “Ogun,” patron of iron—a not so oblique reference to the Iron Horse, that once pulled that legendary train to Harlem of the 1941. The chant and the batá by Mr. Martinez and tres by Mr. Lapidus provide wonderful counterpoint to Ms. Durandy’s traditionally referenced lyric which turns into an Afro-Cuban introduction to a choral end-section that brings the song home, but not before a trombone solo by Mike Fahie that reaches into the depth of his soul as well as his lungs. Add to that spectacular drum and bass routines by Mr. Bausch and Mr. Ambrosio and the signature tune of the Ellington Orchestra is made wholly new. “U.M.M.G” is possibly one of Mr. Strayhorn’s most complex compositions, featuring a narrative canvas that is also portrait and homage and uses magical dissonances. The rhythmic pulse is set in a breathtaking Afro-Cuban 6/8 cycle and features the most talented young pianist, John Stenger. The pianist also shares the stage spotlight with the magnificent Wilson “Chembo” Corniel who adds drama to the mystique of the song.

“A Flower is a Lovesome Thing” is the idiomatic bridge for the two cultures: the elegiac jazz one from that Billy Strayhorn may have used to recall the semi-rural environs of his youth and the transcendental move to New York and the 5/4 pulse of Argentinean “zamba” and 6/4 Afro-Cuban beat that is ironically played with the dreamy and rhapsodic spirit of a Cuban “trova” bolero. The trombonist, Mike Fahie and Ms. Durandy show up to steal the show. “Chelsea Bridge” is another classic from the Billy Strayhorn repertoire. The original chart was deeply melancholic and brooding and somehow the darker side of Mr. Ellington’s tenor saxophone mainstay: Paul Gonçalves, who transformed the chart into a contemplative classic. On this record, Mr. Carlon, while retaining the baton, hands the stage over to the wailing trumpeter in Alex Norris. The deep colours and dense textures of the music are made somewhat lighter by the tres of Benjamin Lapidus and the soaring flute of Anton Denner, who transform the viscous harmonies into a somewhat lighter cha-cha-cha.

Of course no repertoire music of Billy Strayhorn would be complete without its hidden gems and La Rumba is a Lovesome Thing is no exception. “Johnny Come Lately” is a magnificent chart—from start to finish. Mr. Carlon’s outstanding opening to this record begins with a chart that blends the irony and humour of Puerto Rican decimal, narrated by Benjamin Lapidus, which is offset by a magnificent and dramatic solo by the inimitable Dave Ambrosio. The bassist is a powerful melodist refuses to reside in the back of an ensemble by the sheer strength of his full-frontal polyrhythmic attack. The song is transformed into a stellar masterpiece by the joyous turns of Pedro Martinez on congas and batá. Mr. Carlon is heard in a one of his yet elegiac solos here. “After All” begins with a dreamy opening on piano by John Stenger, which starts off by being a little reminiscent of tortured sighs of Franz Liszt’s Etude No. 3 “Un Sospiro,” but spectacular melancholia soon turns to joy as Mr. Stenger makes the introduction to this rare Billy Strayhorn chart his own. “Daydream is a magnificent son montuno made more memorable by the divine vocalastics of Ms. Durandy and the counterpoint from the alto saxophonist Anton Denner. Perhaps the most mysterious and magical hidden gem from the pen of Billy Strayhorn is “Tonk,” which Mr. Carlon has turned into a Puerto Rica “bomba” and features the charmed hands of Obanilú Iré on barriles, together with Benjamin Lapidus on tres. Trumpeter Alex Norris gets a free rein of the song and recasts some of the soloing with a primordial trumpet. “Sweet and Pungent” is wholly reimagined and recast with its classical Cuban the strutting rhythms that are courtesy of Pedrito Martínez. The dense layers of harmony come from Ryan Keberle on trombone and Mr. Carlon himself on soprano saxophone who transposes this piece from a brooding blues to a joyful Cuban guaguancó.

So what on earth would Billy Strayhorn think of this record La Rumba is a Lovesome Thing? He might easily regard the album as a welcome surprise that shows the flexibility of his music. And much more, that their endearing nature is not so much that they still sound fresh and relevant in another era of music, but that they still have beauty and meaning in an altogether different metaphor. He might also take his proverbial hat off to the ingenuity of Paul Carlon, who dreamed it all; then had the strength of character to turn his dream into reality, no doubt paying some dues along the way.

Track Listing: Johnny Come Lately; Take The “A” Train; After All; Day Dream; U.M.M.G.; Tonk; A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing; Sweet And Pungent; Passion Flower; Chelsea Bridge.

Personnel: Paul Carlon: tenor and soprano saxophones, flute, arrangements; Anton Denner: alto saxophone, flute, piccolo; Alex Norris: trumpet; Mike Fahie: trombone(2 – 5, 7, 9, 10); Mark Miller: trombone; Ryan Keberle: trombone (1, 6, 8); John Stenger: piano; Dave Ambrosio: acoustic bass; William “Beaver” Bausch: drum set; Christelle Durandy: vocals (1, 2, 4, 7, 9); Benjamin Lapidus: vocals and décima (1), tres (1, 2, 6, 10); Wilson “Chembo” Corniel: congas (3, 5, 10); Obanilú Iré: barriles and maraca (6); Pedrito Martínez: vocals (1, 2), congas (1, 2, 8) and batá (2).

Paul Carlon on the web: paulcarlonmusic.com

Label: Zoho Music | Release date: July 2013

Reviewed by: Raul da Gama