Ray Mantilla: High Voltage

Ray Mantila at Bushnell Park - 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

In 1932, Duke Ellington wrote one of the most famous songs, one that has not only endured for decades but might also be held up as a means to measure almost all Jazz and Latin Jazz. “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” was what The Duke called it. Throughout the more than 60 years that Ray Mantilla has made music he has more than complied with that obligation and this has endeared Mantilla to musicians as demanding as Ray Barretto, Gato Barbieri, Cedar Walton, Max Roach and Charles Mingus (to name, but a few giants of this music). The unbridled genius of Mantilla has meant that his skills have been in demand by many a bandleader. More importantly this also inspired him to create nine albums and counting. This disc High Voltage is the latest in an oeuvre that continues to enrich the library of Latin-Jazz music.

Ray Mantilla - High Voltage
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Editor’s Pick · Featured Album

Ray Mantilla is a musician’s musician and a peerless percussion colorist who not only brings an enormous tonal palette to bear on music, more often than not, recreates familiar music with the extraordinary sense of color and texture of his playing. He does so in the sensuous caress of the skins of his myriad battery of percussion instruments, which is to suggest a definite physicality in his playing, but one based on what the Greeks would call both “agape” and “erotas”, that is “love” in a Platonic sense and “attraction” driven by lust. However, as we expect from Ray Mantilla, everything sounds natural and inevitable. Ego doesn’t come into it; rather he acts as a conduit between the drum and the music with a purity that few can emulate. (I‘m put in mind of Tata Güines, Candido, Puntilla, Ray Barretto and only a handful of others). But to describe any of these figures – and certainly Ray Mantilla – as merely ‘intellectual’ would be to miss the entire humanity of their playing.

Take the music of High Voltage; the opening of “Cedar’s Blues“, to be precise; in Mantilla’s hands it’s a sinuous, conversational affair and the way he lines the colors for Iván Renta on tenor saxophone, Jorge Castro on baritone saxophone and trumpeter Guido González to ‘paint’ over Edy Martínez’s silvery keyboard is done with enormous subtlety. Or sample the melancholic Ben Tucker and Bob Dorough chart “Comin’ Home Baby” that is simultaneously intimate yet with the gravity of a true penitent. Here he also brings out the hands’ largely stepwise motion to a nicety – sometimes reassuring, sometimes questioning. Such skill and deft touch can only come from a percussionist who indulgences every instrument he plays as if it were a living breathing being that demands to be treated as such. His introduction to “Midnite Jazz Affair” is perfect example of his the congas respond to his evocative exhortations.

Mantilla is not an artist who takes Latin Jazz – or even Jazz – to extremes; he does not intervene in the idiomatic expression that composers intend for their work. Still he manages to distil the purest essence of melody and rhythm to such mesmerising effect. Take his marvelous break on “Midnite Jazz Affair”, and then through the rest of the song, for instance. Many younger percussionists might take the buoyant tempos at a more headlong pace, Yet Mantilla’s versions here feel so right; the rhythms are bright and springy without freneticism. And the joy is palpable in every note. On the bolero “The Gypsy” with a change of mood and pace Mantilla urges Iván Renta into a gorgeously plaintive space with an almost whispered, gentle tapping and rubbing of the skins.

That track is followed by a brilliantly Ray Mantilla’s original composition, and an unexpected change of pace. Even the title – “Lane Change” – gives nothing away. The shifting ‘talas’ or Hindustani rhythms tattooed on the tabla by Maitreya Padukone and the subsequent ‘ jugalbandhi’ (musical dialogue) that occurs between Padukone and Mantilla on cajón spices things up adding to the daring rhythmic ornamentation before bass, drums, piano and flute join in the wild dancing music that ensues. Again, unpredictably so the tabla returns to call an end to the brief carnival. But not for long. “Lane Change” leads where else but to “Exit 45“, a piece played in minor modes, led by the growling baritone saxophone of Jorge Castro. Here too one can’t help but be struck by Mantilla’s ornamentation in his brief solo – bustling, glistening and playful – which could fill a review on its own.

The gorgeous mambo “Tú No Me Quieres” invites Castro on flute, Guido González and Mike Freeman on vibraphone to really unbutton themselves in a three-way counterpoint that is breathtaking and almost run away with the piece, if not for the rock-steady grooving of pianist Edy Martínez, bassist Cucho Martínez and drummer Diego López. The classic “Ramona” follows and twinkles with an easy playfulness, its dotted bolero rhythms rendered by each of the other musicians with such poetry, Ray Mantilla’s ornamentation once again ever generous yet never overbearing. Miles Davis’ “Solar” is a dramatic change of pace, purposefully busy in the ensemble’s sharp jabbing notes and phrases that punctuate the various solos on piano, saxophone and trumpet that follow. Ray Mantilla’s airy conversations with Edy Martínez on Ron Carter’s “Third Plane” is characterised by Mantilla leading the musicians to indulge in strategic rhythmic pauses – especially on Ray Mantilla’s part – just long enough to let the music breathe. It’s a perfect way to end this breathtaking journey as we exhale with Ray Mantilla and his extraordinary group of musicians.

Track List – 1: Cedar’s Blues; 2: Comin’ Home Baby; 3: Midnite Jazz Affair; 4: The Gypsy; 5: Lane Change; 6: Exit 45; 7: Tu No Me Quieres; 8: Ramona; 9: Solar; 10: Third Plane

Personnel – Ray Mantilla: percussion, leader; Iván Renta: soprano and tenor saxophones; Jorge Castro: baritone saxophone and flute; Guido González: trumpet and flugelhorn; Mike Freeman: vibraphone (2 & 7); Edy Martínez: piano and Fender Rhodes; Cucho Martínez: bass; Diego López: drums; Maitreya Padukone: tabla (5)

Released: 2017
Label: Savant Records
Runtime: 50:21

Raul Da Gama
Raul Da Gama
Based in Milton, Ontario, Canada, Raul is a poet, musician and an accomplished critic whose profound analysis is reinforced by his deep understanding of music, technically as well as historically.

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