With apologies to Simon and Garfunkel, someone told Dave Samuels it was all happening at the zoo - and the impromptu result was the Caribbean Jazz Project, now a decade long, Grammy Award winning phenomenon that has become one of contemporary jazz’s most compelling live attractions. Fresh from nearly two decades with Spyro Gyra, the vibes and marimba master got a call in 1993 from a promoter doing a jazz series at New York’s Central Park Zoo. His simple request: to put together “something interesting” for a September concert.
Although the personnel has evolved over the years, fans listening to the new two CD set Here and Now – Live in Concert — a two hour plus date recorded in March 2004 at the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild Concert Hall in Pittsburgh - will no doubt feel as gleefully seduced by the same type of spontaneity and infectious percussive energy that launched the franchise over 11 years ago.
“For the first gig in 1993 my thought was to call Andy Narell, who I had played with previously, and Paquito D’Rivera, who I had always wanted to play with,” says Samuels from a tour stop in Houston with one of his other gigs, the vibe/marimba duo ‘Double Image’. “When we started rehearsing, we realized that we had discovered a unique and unexpected chemistry, sonically and personally. No one had ever heard vibes, steel pans and sax together with a Latin rhythm section before. We played a gig in Kentucky a few months later, and were soon seeking out a booking agent.”
The idea of a Caribbean Jazz Project recording was an easy sell to Heads Up founder Dave Love, whose label released the unit’s first two projects, a self-titled 1995 debut and 1997’s Island Stories. Soon the trio—backed by a rhythm section featuring the group’s current rhythm section - Argentinian pianist, Dario Eskenazi, Peruvian bassist, Oscar Stagnaro and drummer, Mark Walker — was performing upwards of 100 shows a year, delighting audiences with a wide-reaching Latin jazz mix that extended far beyond the typical Afro-Cuban and Nuyorican styles that were popular at the time. Narell brought his Trinidadian and Martinique pan sensibilities, D’Rivera mixed in his Brazilian influences and Samuels brought jazz to the party. The idea was to explore the roots of Latin music via the melding of musical cultures from Europe, the Caribbean and West Africa as a result of the slave trade.
CJP might have disbanded in the late 90s when D’Rivera and Narell left and Samuels did his tribute project Tjaderized for Verve in 2000, but instead it found a new lease on life with two new all-star members (guitarist, Steve Khan and flutist, Dave Valentin) and a deal with Concord. For the next 2 studio recordings, the CJP was “the only Latin jazz band without a pianist.” Their subsequent discs with piano and no guitar — The Gathering and Birds of a Feather - earned Grammy nominations for Best Latin Jazz Recording; The Gathering won in 2003. The latest lineup chronicled on Here and Now features the original CJP rhythm section Dario Eskenasi on piano, bassist Oscar Stagnaro and drummer Mark Walker along with Argentinian Diego Urcola blowing heavy trumpet and flugelhorn and Venezulean percussionist Roberto Quintero.
“I didn’t know what to expect with all the personnel changes, but they turned out to be an incredible gift that reinvigorated the whole process of touring and recording,” says Samuels. “We’re bringing new music and influences to the fold and expanding our scope all the time. We’re always shifting. Are we Latin Jazz, or Jazz Latin? The recipe keeps changing, according to the tune or player we spotlight. On the live album, in addition to some originals, we take standards and redecorate them. ‘Stolen Moments’, ‘Naima’ and ‘Caravan’ all have shifting rhythmic feels and time signatures. We like to call ‘Night In Tunisia,’ ‘Nightmare in Tunisia’ because it starts out as a free improvisation piece. When we perform, our trademark is flexilibity.”
Of course, releasing a live CD means that one performance — and thus one evening of whimsical rhythm patterns and improvisations - is captured for posterity above any other. Which suits Samuels just fine. “It was time to do a live album and make a definitive statement about what Caribbean Jazz Project is now. We wanted to capture the intensity and flexibility of the music we make. Studio recordings have time limitations and a certain sheen to them, while Here and Now gives us an opportunity to strip down to the bare wood. Rather than a snapshot, it’s like a motion picture.”