Latin jazz on the West Coast was something different than it was on the East. It was something that percolated its way down through California’s diffuse network of musicians, attracting its adherents from the Mexican-American and African-American communities, the scattering of Cuban and Puerto Rican percussionists who’d made their way to the Bay Area and Los Angeles for work, and the jazz musicians who’d already established themselves there. Cooler-toned, more studied, and more exotic, it was, very broadly, the work of jazz musicians playing in a Latin style, and sort of the inverse of what’d developed organically in the Puerto Rican neighborhoods of New York City, where musicians like Tito Puente and Eddie Palmieri might play Latin jazz without it ever dominating their broader repertoires of mambos, boleros, cha cha’s, etc.
Three choice examples of the West Coast variety of Latin jazz this week, lined up for you like so many Venice Beach head shops. See also these previous posts on Roscoe Weathers and Latin jazz vibes.
1. Carmello Garcia, Trane (R.A.H.M.P.)
Carmelo Garcia, often cited for his ‘60s work with Mongo Santamaria, played the loud, compact Latin drums known as timbales, and enjoyed a long career as a freelance session percussionist. His name deserves mention amongst the greats of West Coast Latin percussion, but 1971’s “Trane” seems to have been his only release as a bandleader.
This is Garcia’s tribute to John Coltrane (before the Coltrane tribute became an annoying cliché). Much of the credit on “Trane” must be given to the excellent Latin jazz pianist Mark Levine, who composed and arranged it. That’s Levine’s piano we hear, and, of course, Garcia on percussion, and they’re joined here by Luis Gasca on trumpet and Pete Christlieb on saxophone. (Thanks to Mark Levine himself for that information!)
Producers Don Christlieb (brother of Pete) and Julian Spear, renowned bassoonist and bass clarinetist respectively (and themselves seasoned studio musicians), do not play on this, however.
This was the first release on what seems to have been Don Christlieb’s pet label project, and boy do I love the R.A.H.M.P. astrological insignia. There are other R.A.H.M.P. releases, actually, including 1972’s Jazz City LP by Christlieb’s son Pete, and, more recently, bassoon recordings by Frederick Moritz, and Don Christlieb himself.
2. Les McCann, McCanna (World-Pacific)
His recording career culminated commercially with 1969’s funky “Compared to What,” a genuine jazz hit, but “McCanna” better captures the great Les McCann, a Los Angeles-based jazz pianist capable of more complexity and sophistication than he’s sometimes given credit for.
Pulsing with dark, lovely energy, and, propelled by an extra bit of the Brazilian batucada-style percussive flair, “McCanna,” like California’s best Latin jazz, builds up a roiling boil without ever losing its cool. Recorded in 1964, “McCanna” is the title track from the first of two Latin-ish albums McCann recorded in the ‘60s (the second, Bucket O’ Grease, had a boogaloo theme). This version of “McCanna” was edited down for 45 rpm release from what was originally the 4:32 LP version.
In addition to McCann on piano, this selection featured Victor Gaskin (bass), Paul Humphries (drums), and Willie Correa (Latin percussion).
Les McCann’s releases tapered off somewhat in the ‘70s, but he is still active today.
3. Plas Johnson Quartet, Caravan (Tampa)
Composed by Juan Tizol, a trombonist for the Duke Ellington orchestra, “Caravan” rarely fails to bring out the demoniac energy of those who perform it, and this version, a barely restrained flurry of jarring piano chords and runaway percussion, is no exception.
Tampa was an obscure West Coast jazz label that existed for a few blips in the ‘50s. As a label they must have sensed their own impermanence – this same recording of “Caravan” was hustled out at least three other times: on Latin percussionist Mike Pacheco’s Bongo Session (on Tampa records), on the album Hot Skins: The Jazz Afro-Cuban Beat (essentially a repackaging on Interlude records of Bongo Session), and on drummer George Jenkins’ Drum Stuff album (also on Tampa). More confusingly, this version never, in any capacity, features Plas Johnson, the otherwise in-demand Los Angeles studio jazz saxophonist known for his work on Henry Mancini’s “The Pink Panther Theme”.
Either way, this was recorded in the late ‘50s. In reality, it featured Mike Pacheco (bongos), Shelly Manne (drums), Carlos Vidal (conga), Robert Gil (piano), Julio Ayala (bass), and Frank Guerroro (percussion).