Augut 3, 2020. Instead of telling people about the benefits of ethnic and cultural diversity, sometimes it’s more effective to just show them. And then, all of a sudden, to paraphrase Marshall McLuhan, the medium—jazz in this case—becomes the message.
Take La Lucha, a piano-driven jazz trio consisting of a Colombian-American bassist (Alejandro Arenas), a Mexican-American pianist (John O’ Leary), and a Jewish-American drummer (Mark Feinman). Their ideas are not confined to their respective places of origin, and their catalogue recognizes no boundaries.
(video starts at minute 3)
On Everybody Wants to Rule the World, the group’s fifth album since meeting at Tampa’s University of South Florida in 2006, Columbian bambucos and Klezmer-flavored Cumbias don’t just co-exist, but thrive next to Tin Pan Alley standards melded with Afro-Cuban arrangements of George Shearing tunes.
Reimagined takes on British New Wave staples and tunes by David Bowie and The Beach Boys don’t so much jockey for position with straight-ahead bluesy burners featuring a guesting Houston Person; more accurately, they join forces to amplify the others’ strengths, to provide the listener with an unforgettable auditory umami.
Clarinetist and part-time mad scientist of the synthesizer, Ken Peplowski, produced the album and as a real difference maker on each cut where he plays. The venerable tenor man Houston Person features, too, as does the ascendant young tenor Melissa Aldana. Diego Figuerido, the Brazilian guitar wizard who featured brilliantly on Cyrille Aimée’s last album, is back at it again here, with that distinctive yet referential acoustic sound that calls to mind legends like Joao Gilberto and Paco de Lucia and even Joe Pass.
Then there’s vibraphonist Chuck Redd, who’s steeped in “the Latin thing” from having played so long under one of the masters, Charlie Byrd. He shines brightest here on an unlikely mash-up of “Lullaby of the Leaves” and “Lullaby of Birdland” that La Lucha calls its “Lullaby Medley.” Redd and O’Leary combine memorably to give Shearing’s classic an Afro-Cuban retrofitting that doesn’t alter the fundamental qualities that make it a legend; they just amplify its soul. It’s the fresh new look this old icon had harbored deep inside all along.
The guests alone here will get this one in the door with listeners, but the truth is that La Lucha is nearly as compelling when playing as a trio. They shine especially—complemented only by cosmic sounds courtesy of Peplowski’s Moog synthesizer—on a rendition of Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” which is destined to become a staple of WRTI’s Jukebox Jazz if it hasn’t already.
It’s as gratifying a jazz arrangement of pop tune as there is, especially the final two-thirds, where O’Leary’s improvisational ego doesn’t deign to leave Bowie in the dust but rather honors the late hit-maker.
O’Leary’s “The Sundering” is another one showcasing just the core trio. Written in a sophisticated and percussive 7/4, this one simmers with sadness and is accelerated by an underlying sense of urgency. O’Leary, the son of a Mexican mother and American father, dedicated this one to all the families seeking opportunity in this country, like his once did, only to be separated at the Mexican-American border. The rhythm section here, as the younger generation might say, is absolute fire.
Arenas’ “Lilis” has that throwback funk and soul sound reminiscent of tunes written by Creed and Bell and Gamble and Huff, with O’Leary invoking the ethereal on the Fender Rhodes, and Arenas’ popping bass lines evoking visions of mutton chops and afros and gatherings featuring fondue. Feinman’s “Dance Dance Dance” is a not-too-distant cousin with a yacht-rock sensibility and O’Leary revealing his ultra-decadent side, shooting electronic lines off the Moog Sub Phatty synthesizer like sunbursts. This is rich, unadulterated stuff. Proceed with a chaser if necessary.
But for something completely different, try the straight-ahead swinger, “Blues for Houston Person.” So often recently, we hear the eponymous tenor saxophonist accompanying pianists or vocalists—and the varnished sound he presents on those dates is no less great. But, here, Person’s sound is throatier and smokier and just flat-out bluesier. Can it be after all these years that his versatility has been underrated?
The title track, a more soulful but otherwise rather faithful rendition of Tears for Fears’ mid-’80s New Wave chart-topper, is the third of three tunes showcasing the assertive yet improvisationally nimble young tenor saxophonist Melissa Aldana. It’s another one ready for heavy rotation on Jukebox Jazz; somewhere the late Jeff Duperon is smiling broadly at this surplus of programming riches.
But, for my money, Aldana’s even better utilized on the earlier cuts, “1+2” and “Otra Vez,” both Feinman compositions. The former, a persistent, recursive tune given to soloing might very well be, on second listen, the most complete contemporary jazz tune on the record. I hear Joshua Redman’s technique and ideas in Aldana’s playing here and Brad Mehldau’s sensibility in O’Leary’s accompaniment. “Otra Vez” also features Peplowski on clarinet, making for a most exciting Latin-Klezmer dynamic that Feinman characterizes as a “Jewish cumbia.”
My favorite tunes on the album? The two bookends, both Arenas compositions. “Por La Tarde,” the opener is a bambuco-inspired tune in three that’s like a big house out of a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel—so many different rooms here. The interplay between O’Leary and Peplowski is worth whatever the price of admission happens to be; they playfully—and skillfully—mimic each other, trading places echoing the other’s phrasing. A surgical yet boundlessly artful Figuerido solo breaks up two rounds of their exhilarating cat and mouse antics, a perfect intermezzo.
“Samba Pra Diego,” is, as the title suggests, a samba written for Figuerido. With bright, ebullient solos by Redd, Peplowski, and Figuerido, this is the perfect closer because it perfectly and succinctly reintroduces La Lucha in its purest form. The covers catch the eye—and the ear, too—but this sound…this is what will keep me coming back again and again.