Featured Album · Editor’s Pick
The singular scholarship of John Santos has never been in any doubt. Though the Introduction to Art of the Descarga delves into the details of this scholarship, it is Mr Santos’ Track Notes that advances that scholarship and sets the stage for this advancement, which is, of course, contained in the music on the disc. The deceptively simple repertoire, is also a gentle, albeit powerful reminder that this business of the descarga, while being an “invention” of Afro-Cuban application of learning from Jazz Jam to Spanish dance forms, it seeped into the “Cuban” culture of the African Diaspora. In 1940’s Cuba, practitioners of filin, invented and shaped by José Antonio Méndez, César Portillo de la Luz, and Luis Yánez [who melded the bolero with extended Jazz improvisation], and further developed by the ingenius creativity of Bebo Valdés and Frank Emilio Flynn [and later] Cachao, Peruchín and others. In all of this it is sometimes forgotten that the great musicians of Puerto Rico – such as Tito Puente and Charlie Palmieri, and the Dominican Johnny Pacheco – contributed enormously to the art of the descarga.
This is exactly the purpose of Mr Santos’ disc Art of the Descarga. It is a purpose whispered rather than shouted out – although this is certainly a rather loud whisper in the music itself – by the John Santos Sextet. Mr Santos is, nevertheless, very “loud” in his own Track Notes as he previews form, and content as well as origin or inspiration and sociological context, assigning to each of the above its right place and using all of the above to set up the song before plunging into the music itself. For instance, “Bernal Nights” is not only a “Danzón-Mambo”, but also a significant doffing of the ubiquitous John Santos hat to a place in San Francisco where the composer was raised. And just like that, “Los Misterios” turns out to be more than a “Rumba”; it is inspired by “the many mysteries contained in the streets of Mexico City…”, where Mr Santos backs up his belief with a superb metaphor for social change, found in colonial Mexico.
Further, on “”Plena Vida” and on “Lo Tuyo No Va” Mr Santos and his extraordinary ensemble share the stage with Puerto Rican and Nuyorican musicians who consider the idioms of “plena” and “bomba” as secret expressions of resistance to colonial oppression – first from the Spanish and now from the United States – upon its people and its culture. Similarly, in “Descarga Jarocha” Mr Santos applies all of his learning and masterful skill in composition and performance to bring to life son jarocho, a musical dance form spread mainly in the Mexican state of Veracruz, before bringing his elegant musical expedition to a closee with “Tichín” a marvelously heart-felt tribute to both Tito Puente and Chano Pozo. The latter is, of course, the great Cuban rumbero who was the force behind several of Dizzy Gillespie’s Afro-Jazz compositions including the iconic “Manteca” suite. The former is one of the greatest musicians to meld the gilt-edged music and dance forms from Spain with the visceral energy of African polyrhythms that exploded into Afro-Caribbean music with the deceptively simple beats of clave.
And so, just like that, it would seem we have an album to absolutely die for. The Afro-Caribbean Jazz music contained in Art of the Descarga – which educates and innovates, as well as entertains – will forever stand as a milestone in music that is old and new; traditional and contemporary; music that is both artistic and socio-political. The musicians – led by the uniformly brilliant John Santos, both with the musicians of his Sextet and the long line of illustrious guests – are magnificent throughout. This is an extravagant production – so exquisitely characteristic of the superb Smithsonian Folkways – the music is extraordinarily brilliant, and it also bears mention, that when it comes to the [sonic] production values, it appears that no effort has been spared to produce something of great value.
Track list – 1: Juego de ajedrez [Chess Game]; 2: Bernal Heights; 3: Los misterios [The Mysteries]; 4: 14 Mission; 5: Plena vida [Full Life]; 6: Tumbao de corazón [Rhythm of the Heart]; 7: Lo tuyo no va [Yours Doesn’t Make It]; 8: Descargarará; 9: Madera Avenue; 10: Descarga con changüí; 11: Descarga jarocha; 12: Tichín
Personnel – The John Santos Sextet – Melecio Magdaluyo: tenor saxophone [1, 3, 4, 6, 7, 9 – 12], soprano saxophone [2, 5] and baritone saxophone [7, 8]; Dr. John Calloway: flute [1 -3, 5, 7 – 12] and piano [4, 6]; Marco Díaz: piano [1 – 3, 5, 7 – 12] and trumpet [4, 6, 8, 11]; Saúl Sierra: baby bass [1 – 6, 9, 12], bass  and contrabasse [2, 8, 10, 11]; David Flores: drum set and campanas [1, 3, 4, 7, 8]; John Santos: clave [1, 12], batá [5, 8], seguidor , puntador , bombo , congas [1 – 4, 6 – 12], bongó [4, 6, 10, 12], chékere [1, 3, 4, 6, 8, 9, 11], güiro [2, 12], maracas [7, 10], quijada [2, 11], campana [6, 7, 10, 12] and chorus [2, 7]; Special Guests – Orestes Vilató: timbales [2, 12]; Jerry González: trumpet ; Orlando “Maraca” Valle: flute ; Anthony Blea: violins ; Pedro Pastrana: cuatro puertorriqueno [5, 11]; Tito Matos: requinto  and güicharo ; Juan “Juango” Gutiérrez: buleador  and chorus ; Alex LaSalle: buleador  and chorus ; Héctor Lugo: subidor  and chorus ; Orlando Torriente: lead vocals [2, 7]; Willie Ludwig: chorus ; Julia Gutiérrez: chorus ; Sandra García Rivera: chorus ; Rico Pabón: chorus 
Released – 2020
Label – Smithsonian Folkways [SFW 40589]
Runtime – 1:06:47