Wednesday Jun 26

Mark Levine: Moacir Santos

Pianist Mark Levine's resumé is impressive.  He has major credentials in what's commonly called hard bop (Woody Shaw, Joe Henderson, Blue Mitchell, Harold Land), in Latin jazz (Mongo Santamaria, Cal Tjader, Moacir Santos, Willie Bobo), and jazz education (authoring The Jazz Theory Book and The Jazz Piano book as well as serving on various jazz faculties and clinics).  His most significant current performing work is done with his "and the Latin Tinge" band.

Mark Levine and the Latin Tinge started out as a quartet which included Latin percussion as the fourth component of a standard piano, bass, and drums jazz trio.  This has been done before, of course, but most often for a special recording date as when Erroll Garner invited Candido to sit in for the Mambo Moves Garner LP and Red Garland teamed up with Ray Barretto for the Rojo date.

But it's different with Levine.  The percussion is an integral part of the group rather than an add-on.  And Levine is a Latin as well as jazz pianist--if the two genres really can be that neatly separated.  In fact, the first few releases by the Tinge were distinguished by their varied programs.  They used material from the jazz tradition as well as the Latin tradition along with a few welcome originals.  Their Hey, It's Me CD found a quick and comfortable spot on a Favorite Recordings list I came up with one year at the behest of the editor of The $ensible Sound.

This most recent set from Mark Levine and the Latin Tinge, Off & On - The Music of Moacir Santos, finds the band expanded into a quintet by the addition  is  band has morphed from its original quartet  format (piano, bass, drums, percussion) to a quintet by adding Mary Fettig on reeds.  (A previous Tinge session had Harvey Wainapel in a similar role.) Fettig mostly plays flute, but there are a couple of soprano sax outings for her and on one track she backs up her flute playing on the head with bass clarinet, presumably by over- or under-dub.

The other players are bassist John Wiitala, drummer Paul van Wageningen, and percussionist Michael Spiro.  Levine, of course, holds forth at the piano and provides direction.

Off & On presents almost exclusively, as the CD's subtitle makes clear, the compositions of Moacir Santos.  Levine has tremendous admiration for the Brazilian composer, educator, player, and music icon.  He recorded with Santos on the Saudade album for '70s Blue Note.  Throughout Off & On we hear Levine's affection for and inspiration from Santos both as a person and as a musician.  But this close focus on Santos means that the disc is more homogeneous than previous Tinge dates.  I miss the variety that characterized the earlier programs.

For me high spot on this CD is "Haply Happy."  It has an ear-tickling structure and occasional eyebrow raising changes in time and dynamics.  It opens with a quick, quiet percussion sting, followed by a flute and percussion statement of the theme with punctuation from the keyboard.  A couple of two-bar bits straight 4/4 swing kick over the .  Then comes the blowing which starts out with flute, bass, and percussion and a great feeling of improvisatory freedom, some more of those piano punctuations and another two bars of 4/4 lead to a reprise of the main theme after which the drums and percussion take over and then the the percussion takes over until a fadeout ends the piece rather more quietly than it began.  It's a rather neatly structured and balanced performance.

Looking back over what I just wrote, I see that up to this point, I've given Levine slight attention.  I better correct that.  It is, after all, his gig, but his solo space seems less than what a leader might normally allocate.  I really like his playing.  It's melodically inventive, rhythmically astute, and generally a joy to listen to.  All of this is most evident on the opening "Nona," the most significant feature for Levine's piano on the date.

And speaking of joyful listening, as with the other Levine CDs that I've heard from Left Coast Clave, the recording quality supports the music in every way.

By the way, what I first saw as a bland and almost pointless cover--a sort of yellow and green wash--is actually an interpretation of the Brazilian national flag.  I see that now that it has been explained to me, but it still impresses me as a design that fails to communicate a sense of what the music behind that cover might be.  The music itself doesn't need support, but a potential purchaser browsing through a selection of CDs might benefit from some help.