Ray Mantilla: The Connection

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Ray Mantila - Photo by Andrew James
Ray Mantila performing at Bushnell Park. Hartford Jazz Society’s Monday Night Jazz Summer Series. July 28, 2014. – Photo credit: Andrew James

Ray Mantilla may be better remembered for his being one of the founding members of Max Roach’s legendary drum ensemble, M’Boom, but in reality that came after he had made several forays into the world of African-Cuban music in the early 50’s, playing in his beloved New York City, with the likes of Xavier Cugat and Lou Pérez. Then his musical credentials began to be enriched by tours with Eartha Kitt, Al Cohn and Larry Coryell, to name a few before helping found M’Boom. His varied experiences with Don Pullen, Charles Mingus and Muhal Richard Abrams took him to many places and involved a myriad of settings before he returned from time to time, to the metaphor of Latin Jazz. It is this language that he preaches his gospel in The Connection. On this record, more than ever, Mr. Mantilla displays all of skill on an assortment of percussion, centred around the tumbadoras.

Ray Mantilla - The Connection
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Mr. Mantilla plays in a muscular manner and his approach to the tumbadoras and the timbales is as thunderous as it is intricate. His thick and calloused hands move in a proverbial blur as he brushes and thumps the skins of the congas that are stretched in various tensioned settings to provide angular microtonal variations so as to enable the essaying of a melody if he should so choose to play one. There are subtle variations here: sometimes he plays a magnificent tattoo with the back of his gnarled knuckles, or he might even create a harmonic progression within a polyrhythmic line with the flat of his mighty palms, alternating that with a rapid-fire series of notes with his fingers. In this way he mesmerises in the most seasoned ears, which is not, of course, his intention; except that he wishes to and does create the most wondrous Donner und Blitzen of a song. There is a wonderful example of this in Mr. Mantilla’s playing on “Pieces” a tour de force by one of the great percussionists of any era.

It is possible to assume that Ray Mantilla does not get the credit he deserves, raised as he was in NYC. Fools might suggest that he is not the real thing, which is one of those anomalies that goes with playing, but not hailing from one or other of the islands of the Caribbean, and God-forbid he is not from Cuba. This is a typically American foible with a relatively recent history, now almost distorted by a tea-party mentality. But Mr. Mantilla has an Afri-lectic sensibility, to borrow a term from the Cuban pianist, Omar Sosa. Embedded in his ancient ancestry is a system of roots that stretch from America to Africa and for this he has paid his dues ever since he could read the alphabet, perhaps. He is an American, no doubt and because he may also have roots in Puerto Rico the staccato cut and thrust of African polyrhythms is also combined by the angular sashaying of Latin beats. There is remarkable connecting of these dots forming a vast cultural topography from “Andean Fantasy” and “Los Apolypticanos” through “Psalm 107,” “El Carnavalito” “Homenaje a San Rafael” and “Sonando Puerto Rico” and likewise from Europe and Africa to the Americas via New York City of course.

In all of this, Ray Mantilla is not alone; he has a marvelous ensemble that helps carry the music forward in a heavenly manner. The horns—Willie Williams and Enrique Fernández—are magnificent throughout. Mr. Fernández plays almost all saxophones and is heard on baritone saxophone and flute. He brings a beautiful erudition and a gravitas that ought to have given him a more wide acceptance. Instead he still is known only among the cognoscenti, which is not a bad thing, but might have added a few more records to his career as a leader if he were better-accepted in the so-called industry. At any rate he plays with a rich, moist tone on baritone saxophone and adds soaring harmonies that seem to emanate from the very bottom of his gut. Willie Williams is not much different and soars like an Andean condor whether he is playing tenor or soprano saxophone. Guido González is brilliant in his all-too-short appearance on the album. Edy Martínez is an astounding pianist, always bright and percussive; always on point with a swinging tempo and con tumbao. Cucho Martínez skips behind and ahead of the beat with a gentle and mightily rumbling bass and Bill Elder plays with uncanny empathy for Ray Mantilla. It bears mention that every member of the ensemble brings something wonderful to this group and even if this may have taken multiple takes and splices to produce what is ultimately forever burned on the record, it is all well worth the effort as this album has ultimately become one for the ages.

Track Listing – Andean Fantasy; Los Apolypticanos; The Simple Life; Psalm 107; El Carnavalito; Homenaje a San Rafael; Pieces; New Moon; Sonando Puerto Rico; Blues For Ray.

Personnel – Ray Mantilla: percussion; Willie Williams: tenor and soprano saxophone; Enrique Fernández: baritone saxophone, flute (1, 2, 5, 9, 10); Guido González: trumpet (1, 2, 7); Edy Martínez: piano; Cucho Martínez: bass; Bill Elder: drums.

Released: 2013
Label: Savant Records
Runtime: 53:58