A rare, albeit singular feeling of joy while living under a lockdown due to the pandemic is the receipt, in the mail, of a recording by Joe McCarthy and his band The New York Afro Bop Alliance. The joy is magnified, of course, because this recording is his finest, so far. To be sure this is Mr McCarthy’s “New York Afro Bop Alliance Big Band” and it is staffed with some of the finest musicians to inhabit a studio. Also, to be sure, this music was recorded in April of 2019 – somewhat before the coronavirus dwelt among us – but it has been released as the world struggles with this pandemic. Yet, while we all yearn for the sparkle of joy, this recording delivers all of that and so much more.
The album is appropriately entitled Upward, which in fact takes its name from a piece by the group’s pianist, Manuel Valera. The work was written some years ago and first appeared on Mr Valera’s own New Cuban Express recording [MAVO, 2012]. The original was a sextet performance featuring the incomparable alto saxophonist and chekeré player, Yosvany Terry. This new version has been expanded and completely re-harmonised for this big band. It is a questing, effervescent work and with its eloquent melody, lustrous harmony and diabolically swerving melody, it sets the tone for the entire album: one that is brimming with the unfettered joys of music. Mr Valera’s solo is beautifully translucent and trombonist John Yao, plays [Mr Terry’s part] from the original version; his dolorous trombone bringing a somewhat bittersweet tone-texture to the piece.
Mr Valera also contributes the balletic song “Isabelita”, which is a fine song too, its architecture once again built on maddeningly intense rhythmic foundation. The pianist and trumpeter Dave Smith share solo duties and both of the soloists – albeit brief – are endlessly inventive as they bring endlessly inventive ideas filtered through musicianship that is born of a kaleidoscope of colours, key changes and moods. Equally significantly, the big band adds elegance and lustre to the score. Other singular compositions are also contributed by guitarist Vinnie Valentino. Both “J Ban Jazz” [dedicated to bassist John Benitez] and “Positano” [so named, we are told in the notes, after a colourful Italian town] are superbly crafted pieces and rendered in highly polished performances full of nuance, wit and spirit. There is, of course, much more in terms of music, orchestration and performance – such as Boris Kozlov’s “Nostalgia in Time” [dedicated to the late bassist Charles Fambrough].
Incidentally Mr Kozlov’s participation here is something of a coup for Mr McCarthy’s band. There are few better bassists than Mr Kozlov playing today and his performances on this recording are ample proof of this. “Positano” is one such piece, where the bassist growls with bittersweet pathos and rumbling gravitas, and shows why he’s so highly regarded. However, this album belongs to Mr McCarthy. The drummer and leader treats every work with painstaking care and inspires his musicians to interiorise the narratives and emotions of each work and give of themselves with metaphoric ingenuity. Moreover his approach to percussion [always ably aided and abetted by the wonderful Samuel Torres and the partnership is on exquisite display on “Caravan”] is wonderfully modernist and he gives melodies and harmonies a [rhythmic] percussive attack that is thunderously vivid and compelling. His playing is beautiful throughout. It’s no wonder that this is why, with its eight gleaming gems of music, Upwards ends up sounding as the best album that Mr McCarthy and The Afro Bop Alliance have recorded so far.
Track list – 1: Upwards; 2: J Ben Jazz; 3: Caravan; 4: Five for Elvin; 5: Nostalgia in Time; 6: Isabelita; 7: Afternoon in Paris; 8: Positano
Personnel – Joe McCarthy: drums and band leader; Woodwinds – Matt Hong, Kristy Norter, Ben Kono, Dave Riekenberg, Eden Bareket; Trumpets – Nick Marchione, Raul Agraz, Bryan Davis, Dave Smith, Vinnie Valentino: guitar; Manuel Valera: piano; Boris Kozlov: basses; Samuel Torres: percussion
Released – 2020
Label – ZOHO Music [ZM201909]
Runtime – 1:10:21
Afro Bop Alliance Big Band: Revelation