Master of the Spanish tinge
by Piotr Michalowski
The drum holds a privileged place in the jazz tradition and in many ways best symbolizes the African roots of the music. There have been some extraordinary jazz percussionist composers just think of Denzil Best, Max Roach, Susie Ibarra, or Chano Pozo and one of the premier ones of our time is Roland Vazquez.
Vazquez grew up in Los Angeles, where he played in rock bands but eventually broadened his perspectives to include funk, Latin music, and jazz. He moved to New York, where he led various larger ensembles, including a big band, and studied at the Manhattan School of Music. After graduation he returned to the institution as an instructor, but this did not curtail his performing and recording career. Not content with exploring jazz and Latin traditions, he began to make a name for himself as a classical composer, writing music for chamber groups as well as orchestras. During the last decade he taught at the U-M, but he has now returned to touring with his own band.
The drummer/composer is in love with the broad variety of Afro-Latin rhythms. While many successful Latin or jazz percussionists work within a narrow stylistic range and identify with a specific tradition, Vazquez has spent many years studying the complexities of "the Spanish tinge," in the famous words that the New Orleans pioneer Jelly Roll Morton used to describe the Afro-Caribbean elements in early jazz. One of the courses Vazquez taught at the U-M was a survey described as "a historical perspective of the evolution of the music evolving out of the Afro Latin diaspora: from West Africa to Cuba to Afro Latin Jazz." His own music making reflects the lessons he absorbed from his studies.
Vazquez is now working with a quartet that consists of two longtime friends and collaborators, saxophonist Joel Frahm and electric bassist Anthony Jackson, as well as relative newcomer Manuel Valera. Frahm is one of the finest younger tenor saxophonists
in the country, able to fit into a wide variety of contexts without losing his musical identity. Jackson plays a six-string electric bass that he calls a "contrabass guitar," and his distinctive sound and phrasing can be heard on many recordings by musicians as varied as Buddy Rich, Paul Simon, Michel Petrucciani, and Chaka Khan. The Cuban-born Valera is, like Vasquez, interested in the intersection of jazz and Latin music, and in composition as well as improvisation. His two previous Ann Arbor performances were simply magnificent, and his return, this time as a sideman, is much anticipated.
The Roland Vazquez Quartet plays at Kerrytown Concert House on Sunday, March 25.
[Review published March 2007]