Smoky moods and splintered rhythms permeate Straight Ahead from Havana, the new jazz album from drummer Ignacio Berroa and his trio. In fact, “straight ahead” isn’t precisely how I’d describe these prismatic arrangements of old Cuban songs, tunes that Berroa remembers “listening to in my youth, both at home and walking the streets of Havana.” Ferocious creativity and unexpected dimensions energize the 10 tracks.
The longtime drummer for Dizzy Gillespie has just the right musicians to complement his busy and fascinating playing on these numbers, many of them upbeat. Martin Bejerano’s scintillating piano comping and stunning solos dance atop bassist Josh Allen’s funky-solid grooves. Allen also contributes graciously melodic solos.
Right from the syncopated chordal riff that starts off the opening track (“Alma Con Alma”), the tunes have a noticeably Latin lilt. But the grooves and overall musicality are pure jazz, so in that sense this is a “straight ahead” album. On the other hand, it roams many crooked and winding paths on its way through the Havana streets of Berroa’s youth. On the irresistibly swinging “La Tarde,” Bejerano delivers a slyly inventive solo, Allen follows up with his own nimble outing, and the tune ends with Berroa rolling and rumbling under a repeated riff.
Fascinating three-way interplay centers “Drume Negrita,” while “No Te Importe Saber” features tastefully spacious solos from Allen and Bejerano. The whirling dervish of “Tres Golpes” sets up the dazzling syncopated complexity of “Si Me Pudieras Querer.” I found one half of my brain getting blissfully lost in the album’s rhythmic play and meaty assertiveness while the other half stood back marveling at the musicianship.
Ruben Blades provides silvery guest vocals on “Negro de Sociedad.” Even this, the album’s smoothest track, is driven, as well as undergirded, by Berroa’s chunky and intricate rhythmic magic. Indeed the drummer’s artistry carries the trio to great heights. Bejerano combines formal assurance and improvisational ingenuity. Allen (with Lowell Ringel sitting in on bass on two tracks) glues the whole session together.
The album closes with with Berroa fueling an onslaught of trio improvisation in the monster number “Me Recordarás.” The song’s title – in English, “You Will Remember Me” – says it all: This memorable set is one of the best small-group jazz albums of recent vintage. It’s available now.