Mano a Mano - Back to the Future
Of all the musical idioms, jazz is perhaps the one that most rewards, even encourages, evolution and improvisation. We look back to our elders with respect and appreciation. But there is little doubt that the future does not belong to the timid or the meek (and God knows how many have been recording the same album for decades). Happily, this is not the case with Michel. His canon is dotted with bold incursions into big band Latin Jazz (One More Once, Caribe), flamenco (Spain, Spain Again) and symphony orchestra (Rhapsody in Blue, Concerto for Piano & Orchestra), not to mention the requisite litmus test of a major pianist, as evidenced in Michel’s Solo.
With his new outing, Mano a Mano, Michel returns to his format of choice, the trio. But it is a different kind of trio. Giovanni Hidalgo, the great Puerto Rican conguero, takes over the spot normally reserved for the trap drummer. Also, this is not a piano, bass and congas date either. For his first recording with Giovanni in fifteen years, Michel must have sent him a simple message: “Bring your toys!”
The album’s opening cut is a wink to Michel’s long-standing followers, to the early days when his dates opened with a barnburner. Only this time, the affirmative kickoff track, “Yes” is jazzier, edgier than previous intros. The Camilo sleight-of-hand has matured nicely, even as his signature phrasings are intact.
Other uptempo originals include “Mano a Mano”, a three-way, take-no-hostage, meeting-of-the-minds among equals. “Rice and Beans” locks into a savory groove and does not let go until it ends. If you’re dieting, do not listen to it on an empty stomach. “No Left Turn” is a samba-choro that would have pleased Pixinguinha. Listen to Giovanni ride it on pandeiro and tamborim. “Rumba pa’ ti” starts out slowly, like a columbia, then breaks out in an unexpected tangle of intricate harmonies and just plain fun.
This time around, Michel’s ballads are more of this earth, less ethereal, even if this earth means the Orient. Witness echoes of Juan Tizol in “Then and Now”, opening with bassist Charles Flores casting an exotic spell coll’arco, before Michel brings it closer to Andalucian climes on piano. Behind him, Giovanni floats on chimes, bongos and shaker. “You and Me” feels like a bachata with the piano replacing the requinto and guitar. Call it what you may, this bolero, by any other name, is a love song for the ages.
Speaking of which, Michel leaves indelible imprint on three standards. “The Sidewinder” harks back to the woolly days of boogaloo in the early sixties, when Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man” put Mongo Santamaría on the map. You’ll recall the late, great Mongo was Michel’s special guest in his major label debut album. The memory lingers on in this track. Charles plays ostinato over a sultry 6/8 beat as Michel caresses the melody of Coltrane’s immortal “Naima”. From inconsolable sorrow to wily deconstruction, today’s leading exponents of Latin Jazz have explored Argentina’s timeless zamba, “Alfonsina y El Mar”, in various guises. Michel succeeds by staying close to the melody’s open sesame incantation.
Addtionally, Quisqueya’s beloved pianist deserves credit for displaying the colorist side of Giovanni Hidalgo in all its glory. We know that, as a virtuoso, he’s heir to Tata Guines – with six congas in tow. And he can play notes on his skins like Patato. Further to instruments already mentioned, his guiro and timbales contribute layers of rich texture to the album.
Charles Flores must be seen in concert to be fully appreciated. His overriding virtue is knowing his place, at all times, at all costs. You’ll never find Charles behind the eight ball or ahead of the curve. He’s always in the pocket. Bass in hand, dressed to the nines.
Mano a mano closes with “About You”, a sweet something whispered to a lover’s ear. Its final note, pedal to the metal, eases the listener out of the album’s spell, ever so gently. Surely, this is the closest Michel has come to perfection. For now.
(Nat Chediak is the author of Diccionario de jazz latino, a three-time Grammy and three-time Latin Grammy winning music producer and, more apropos, a charter member of the Michel Camilo Fan Club.)