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Bobby Sanabria might be much better known as a soloist if he weren’t so damn generous. He’s a man of many commitments: drummer, composer, bandleader, journalist—but spends the better part of his energy as an educator, teaching at the Manhattan School of Music, the Mannes/New School for Social Research Jazz Program, and the Drum Collective. Sanabria could easily join the ranks of such heavyweight percussionists as Ray Barretto, Pete Escovedo, and Poncho Sanchez if he’d get out from behind the lectern.
In 1993, Sanabria’s critically acclaimed debut album, ¡N.Y.C Ache!, found him at the helm of Ascensian, one of New York City’s most electrifying Afro-Cuban jazz ensembles. Unfortunately, the record came out on the indie label Flying Fish and didn’t really establish Sanabria as a household name beyond the Afro-Cuban-music intelligentsia. And though he was making significant contributions on the albums of other international Latin-jazz artists—notably, the last recordings of the late maestro Mario Bauza—Sanabria found it hard to cut a deal with a label that would grant him enough artistic freedom to fulfill his uncompromising standards.
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Now record companies are tripping over each other to sign Latin-jazz artists, because of both the ever-increasing Latino population in the U.S. and the success of new stars such as Danilo Perez, David Sanchez, Gonzalo Rubacaba, Claudia Acuna, and the Buena Vista Social Club. Sanabria’s long-overdue sophomore album, Afro-Cuban Dream…Live & In Clave!!!, is now out on an independent label—one with a more established name—and is every bit as sensational as his first.
Recorded live at New York’s legendary Birdland, a hothouse of Latin jazz, the album is a polyrhythmic hurricane of off-the-hook virtuosity and enormous passion. Sanabria’s sinewy, intricate trap drumming interlocks superbly with his propulsive percussion section, and the 13 members of the horn section whip out their solos with amazing fervor; the ensemble plays with such volatile force that it sounds as if it’s got hellhounds on its trail.
But brash technique doesn’t always amount to good music, as, fortunately, Sanabria knows all too well. With his stunning arrangements and stylistic variety, the valiant crusader for Cu-bop’s tradician grounds the album’s rhythmic foundation with mucho respect for the Orishas and the forefathers of Afro-Cuban music.
Before tearing the roof off of Birdland, Sanabria summons the Yoruban deities with an invocation simply titled “The Opening.” The song, a barely three-minute vignette, subtly quotes “In the Time of the Colony” in tribute to the singer who made the song famous, Benny More, one of the earliest popular practitioners of Afro-Cuban music. Afterward, the ensemble barrels forth with trumpeter Michael Philip Mossman’s “Mosscode,” featuring solos by Mossman, alto saxophonist Karolina Strassmayer, and pianist John Di Martino, as well as Sanabria’s thundering solo, which jumps between conventional trap drums and timbales and leaves you gasping for air.
Sanabria’s intense playing eases up a bit on Sue Terry’s bluesy “The Troubadours,” which brilliantly navigates between conventional 4/4 jazz swing and 6/8 Yoruba-based bembe. As Sanabria steers the band between the two styles, trombonist Barry Olsen and tenor saxophonist Peter Brainin pepper the swooning harmonies and pulsating rhythms with ripe, evenly paced solos. The swagger of Boris Kozlov’s walking bass line and Sanabria’s muscular brush strokes flavor “The Troubadours” with urbane blues.
“Mosscode” and “The Troubadours” are the only compositions in which Sanabria solos. Yet throughout the rest of the concert, Sanabria constantly displays the rhythmic agility and muscularity of Muhammad Ali in the ring, whether in explosive renditions of old-school Cu-bop, Charlie Parker’s deathless “Donna Lee,” or Dizzy Gillespie and Chano Pozo’s indispensable chestnut “Manteca” (which gets extra percussive wisdom from the renowned 73-year-old conguero Candido Camero). “Angel Eyes” transforms from an enchanting bolero into a slow burn as tenor saxophonist Jay Collins croons the sultry melody; then, without warning, Collins’ rhapsodic wails grow more menacing beneath Kozlov’s randy bass lines and Sanabria’s goosing backbeats.
As astutely as Sanabria plays Afro-Cuban jazz, he keeps the music from sounding didactic. He’s not afraid of hitting the street or turning toward the avant-garde. Before paying respect to Parker on “Donna Lee,” he engages his audience in a boogie-down-Bronx call-and-response chant that sounds like a hiphop block party. And on Sanabria’s ferocious mambo “Olokun/Yemaya,” Collins’ serpentine soprano spits venom with guest tenor saxophonist John Stubblefield, whose coiling phrases and high-register squalls belie his fondness for post-A Love Supreme John Coltrane.
In the early ’90s, we grieved at the passing of two of Afro-Cuban music’s principal architects—Gillespie and Bauza. And with the recent passing of Mambo King Tito Puente, we have once again lost one of the music’s most vital forces. But in Sanabria’s flawless forays, the music’s deep roots hold firm while putting forth fresh growth. CP