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CD Review: Carlos Jimenez, Arriving

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Flute is a scary instrument; jazz flute doubly so. Too often flute players fall back on either candy sweetness or the tired breath tricks that Ian Anderson has been doing with Jethro Tull for more than thirty years now. The instrument suffers as well by its overuse in Muzak and tepid soft rock, to the point where people reflexively assign flute music to the “eww” file. For my part, all the great jazz flute players who push my buttons (and that’s not many, owing to my own ignorance) are experimenters who use the flute as a tool to explore the outer limits rather than just play some good old straight music.

All this goes triple for Latin jazz flute, where the light tone of the instrument can get buried underneath an avalanche of percussion. It’s a neat trick, then, that Yonkers, NY native Carlos Jimenez has pulled off. As a young Latin jazz flutist, he has made an album that leaves the flute front and center, counterbalanced by a rhythm section that for all their propulsion and weight still leave plenty of room for the flute on top. Moreover, Jimenez is a straight-ahead player interested in exploring groove and melody rather than orbiting Neptune on a descending-modal whole tone run. And even though the words “tasteful flute” generally make me want to run screaming for my Slayer albums, he has made a very promising debut album, titled Arriving.

Jimenez’ tone is light and airy, about as far from the round caramel sweetness of classical flute as it’s possible to get, and he has developed a voice as a soloist that makes the most of this lightness. He sometimes leaves phrases open ended, building up questioning statements for bars at a time before tying them together again. Although he is young (and plays young), his ideas have enough meat on them to promise a lot of room for him to develop as a player.

His band backs him up in style with great comping and tight rhythms that balance the Latin and jazz sides of their sound nicely. Bassist Geoff Brennan in particular skips across the beat with a feel that digs in like Stanley Clarke but bounces like a salsa band. The percussion line of Hilton Ruiz (piano), Guillermo Jimenez (timbales), Aryam Vazquez (congas) and Adam Weber (drum kit) keep Brennan tied to earth with knotty and dense rhythms that smolder and spark. In particular, Ruiz’ solos and tartly dissonant comping fill in harmonic and rhythmic details beautifully, and the occasional backbeat fill from Weber sometimes send things in a welcome bebop direction.

Arriving is a collection of originals by Jimenez (plus Miles Davis’ “So What”), most of which are open-ended head charts that devote most of their space to soloing (I’m not even sure if a couple of Jimenez’ compositions even have heads or not). While this suggests that Jimenez’ writing has a lot of growing up to do, it doesn’t actually detract from the album as a whole. With a rhythm section as tight and alert as his, Jimenez can carry tunes on solos that, though sometimes limited, are expressive enough to retain interest.

Standout tracks include the opening “Tomando Cafe,” “Natalie’s Cha Cha Cha” and “Arriving,” which percolate with sparkling rhythms and probing solos from Jimenez, Ruiz, and guest player Bobby Porcelli (alto sax) on “Arriving.” Elsewhere, as on “Tunnel of Flowers” and “My Allison,” Jimenez and crew give over to prettiness that goes on too long to really hold interest.

The greatest compliment I can give is that I have Arriving on an IPod playlist with a number of heavy hitters in Latin and Latin hybrid music – The Spanish Harlem Orchestra, Mandrill, Jimmy Bosch, Poncho Sanchez, Mongo Santamaria, and so on – and the best selections from Arriving always send me rushing back to the “now playing” screen to remind myself who’s making this good noise.

Although not perfect, Arriving is a strong debut from a young player.

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