When Latin jazz first burst onto the American music scene from Cuba and Brazil in the 1940’s and 50’s it gave life to a popular culture that had started fading away from the complicated virtuosic leaps of the bebop movement. While Dizzy Gillespie attempted to show his audiences how danceable bebop was, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Joao Gilberto, Chano Pozo, Mongo Santamaria and others in the Latin invasion blended the smooth lines and rich harmonies of American Jazz with the complicated yet danceable rhythms of Cuban and Brazilian music. With such a foundation, the advanced musical ambitions that were being chased by bebop-ers were now available in a popular context. Polyrhythms, polymeter, extreme dynamics, open harmonic stylings for more free improvisation, and an aggressive fast paced aesthetic could all be pursued while the underlying pulse of the clave rhythm kept the audiences moving. Moreover, the soft ballads sung by Luis Bonfa and caressed by the remarkably soft wave of Stan Getz’s lines laid down the new bar for what romantic truly meant.
In the modern context the Latin sound still provides a refreshing departure from the hurried, anxious and competitive NYC onslaught. It has however taken on its own sort of aggression and “difficult-ness” as the rhythms become more complex and the melody parts become more disjunct, a stark contrast to Getz’s warm legato.
David Sanchez knows how to play a ballad but some of his most exciting work comes in the form of tunes like Ay bendito which embraces a very modern sound incorporating odd meters interspersed in more common meters, phrasing with changing syncopated accents, dense harmonic structures, and an ambiguous straight eighths feel.
In this video, Edmar Castaneda (internationally renowned jazz harpist) and Miguel Zenon (Professor at New England Conservatory) perform “La Tierra” a lively and emotional piece which demonstrates the contemporary stylings now present in Latin melody and rhythm, all without the use of a single percussion instrument. They also discuss their thoughts on American culture and their experiences coming to the US.