Before you even hear the first note on Bámbula by the contrabassist Alex “Apolo” Ayala, you can almost feel the weight of the music that is to follow when you spin this disc. The bassist, proudly clothed in an African-inspired ceremonial garb, whose photograph is on the cover, comes with muted images of his mother and grandmother hovering behind him, honoured resident spirits that have informed his whole life, and now, this impeccably performed, recorded and presented album. It is a masterpiece of a recording by any bassist playing music today. [The only one that comes close is El Suelo Mío, the solo recording of the great Peruvian Jorge Roeder].
The dark, often growling tones of Mr Ayala’s tone speaks to his ruminatively prayerful state of mind – both as the writer and performer of these songs. And yet his voice is luminous and he plays the repertoire with unforced rhetoric even as he recalls with meticulously planned tenderness, memories of his grandmother, his mother and – above all – his proud Afro-Puerto Rican Heritage in song. You’ll hear an unique kind of textural complexity, intuitive pacing – driven by the rolling thunder of Puerto Rican rhythms pronounced with enormous authority by drummer Fernando García and [more so] by the mesmerising authority of Nelson Mateo González on the barril de bomba as well as on incidental percussion.
Moreover the percussionists who – along with Mr Ayala, of course – create this wall of rhythm against which saxophonist Iván Renta applies his profoundly focused harmonic luminosity. Of course, it is Mr Ayala’s thunderous bass lines that drive the music. The bassist is a constant, sinewy presence. His dynamics switch form forceful and – in a manner of speaking nearly whisper between pieces. What strikes me principally about this wonderful disc is how Mr Ayala delights as much in the abstract brilliance of the melodic and harmonic invention as in the rhythmic projection of the music.
The proud African-ness is established with uncommon honour which – significantly – is best created without the delicate harmonics of the piano, ubiquitous in [mostly] western-oriented music as opposed to one that evokes both the rhythmic and the more lyrical side of an African-inflected sound-world. Here Mr Ayala calls upon the often high-and-mighty vocal-like saxophone to imbue his urgent rhythms with the overarching, wide-slung melodic lines, which the saxophonist pronounces with springy buoyancy, evocative of African dancing.
This music handsomely deserves to reach audiences beyond Afro-Caribbean boffins and receive mainstream listenership. The celebratory nature of “Bámbula dedicated to Mr Ayala’s African and Puerto Rican “ancestors”, and the balletic “Jíbaro Negro” are proudly authentic and soar mightily, as each song unfolds by the saxophonist Mr Renta, and [of course] the bassist and percussionists with commanding assurance. The joyful “Café y Bomba Eh” is beautifully sung, with youthful élan by Anna Louise Andersson.
And the music that honours Mr Ayala’s matriarchal lineage – “Matriarca [for Esther Pastrana Audaín]” and “Ma, Bendición [for Cirita Berrios Pastrana]” celebrate, with great authority, Mr Ayala’s “Puerto Rican Blackness”. Sonically this music showcases Mr Ayala at his finest, and most virtuosic. This is why he is one of the most sought-after harmonically-driven rhythmists by ensembles such as the Spanish Harlem Orchestra, Mike Eckroth, and Orquesta Akokán [to name but a few leading groups]. This is also one of the most significant debut recordings by a bassist playing in any style of music, anywhere in the world…
Track list – 1: Bámbula [To My Ancestors]; 2: Jíbaro Negro; 3: Bozales; 4: Café y Bomba Eh; 5: Matriarca [for Esther Pastrana Audaín]; 6: Agosto; 7: Ma, Bendición [for Cirita Berrios Pastrana]; 8: Las Caras Lindas
Personnel – Alex “Apolo” Ayala: contrabass; Fernando García: drums; Nelson Mateo González: barril de bomba and small percussion; Iván Renta: alto and soprano saxophones; Anna Louise Andersson: vocals 
Released – 2022
Label – TRRcollective [TRRC060]
Runtime – 49:50