Jazz Album of the Week: Carlos Henriquez’s Grammy-Nominated ‘The South Bronx Story’ is En Fuego!
The South Bronx Story is the third solo release from Carlos Henriquez, best known for his work over the past two decades as the principal bassist for the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra (JALCO). JALCO’s maestro, jazz kingmaker Wynton Marsalis, plucked Henriquez for his septet shortly after the latter’s graduation from LaGuardia, New York City’s storied performing arts high school. And since then, Henriquez has played on over 25 releases with Marsalis-led ensembles. It’s been a long and fruitful relationship.
But Henriquez’s relationship with the South Bronx and its Puerto Rican community goes back much further—and is more personal. Though this record is much less about Henriquez himself than about the culturally effervescent neighborhood that shaped him, a neighborhood that is too often rendered incompletely, its history told lazily.
The South Bronx Story is, first and foremost, a terrific album. Henriquez embodies the nexus between Afro-Latin clave and jazz swing; he has few, if any, peers there. You’d expect nothing less from someone mentored, on one hand, by Eddie Palmieri and Tito Puente and, on the other, by Marsalis. But the music isn’t an end in itself here. Rather, it lives up to its titular promise and tells a story—about a community that’s used music and arts to persevere in the face of neglect, and sometimes worse.
The politically charged “Boro of Fire” and “Moses on the Cross” serve to set the record straight about two major drivers of the South Bronx’s infamous poverty. The former refers to the infamous residential fires during the 1970s, many of which were set by landlords who, in the midst of economic downturn, sought to recoup profits via insurance payouts. The latter refers to the Cross Bronx Expressway, conceived by controversial city planner Robert Moses and often cited as both symbol and cause of the borough’s segregation by race and class.
You don’t need to know the backstory or engage with the politically charged aspects of the music to enjoy it. The feverish “Boro,” for example, thrills either way. But knowing the story does engage more of the senses—not just the auditory but the visual, too. This music lights the pilot of the mind’s eye. Close your eyes and maybe you’ll see the surrealism of Dalí and the unfathomable horror of Picasso’s Guernica. And the way you hear it is in unrelenting waves, representing a people who are more like a force of nature, who keep on coming forcefully no matter the indignities visited upon them from without. The adrenaline-fueled desperation, anguished wails, and righteous fury are unmistakable in solos by Marshall Gilkes (trombone) and Michael Rodriguez (trumpet). But the most forceful message is that, despite everything, this is still music to dance to and find joy in—there’s no more powerful form of defiance than that.
“Moses” takes a slightly different musical approach in expressing similar concepts. Henriquez starts things off with a bouncy ostinato joined with handclaps and lines from Jeremy Bosch (flute) and Robert Rodriguez (keys) that weave in and out of unison. They’re soon joined by drummer Obed Calvaire, who lays down a New Orleans-type Second Line groove like a red carpet for tenor sax powerhouse Melissa Aldana — one of the most exciting young talents in all of jazz — to announce her presence with all the authority of the combustible Nuke LaLoosh but none of the control issues.
The progression into the kind of mambo David Ortiz’s El Viaje listeners plan their Saturday nights around is a skillfully executed piece of musical misdirection, though it doesn’t come out of left field; the through-line is Henriquez’s bass ostinato. But the mood enhancing highlight is the call-and-response of Bosch’s vocal soneos. Don’t let the pharmaceutical companies find out that Henriquez, Bosch and co. offer the most effective antidepressant around.
The balance of the album is can’t-miss material. If Bosch’s vocals get you to where you need to be, try “Soy Humano,” another one seemingly made with an El Viaje set list in mind. If Aldana does it for you, check out her soulful balladry on “Black (Benji)” or, perhaps better yet, catch her on the title track, a contemporary jazz anthem where she shares soloing duties with, among others, Temple University’s Terell Stafford.
“Guajeo De Papi,” Henriquez’s tribute to his father, is the place to hear even more Stafford. He and Gilkes exchange several rounds of solos toward the tune’s middle, a veritable musical conversation. It’s special.
The closer, “Hip Hop Con Clave,” is one I feared might feel a little hokey and gimmicky, with its sampling of Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” and “Apache.” But it smokes, courtesy of another bravura vocal turn from Bosch and superior chemistry amongst the rhythm section. Henriquez, Almonte (congas), Calvaire (drum kit), and Robert Rodriguez (piano and electric keys) are the foundation without which Henriquez’s ebullient orchestrations could not come to life.
This is simply an outstanding band and record. It’s delicious and also nutritious—you’ll learn something about history if you do a little research into the events that inspired some of Henriquez’s weightier compositions. In short, The South Bronx Story is worthy of every bit of praise it’s received.