Suenos Latin Jazz/ Steve Hashimoto
"Azul Oscuro"

Azul Oscuro

Review by Brad Walseth

What is the appeal of Latin Jazz? I've sometimes concluded that this music, which seems to speak so well to the heart and senses while seemingly igniting your body to move to its rhthyms, is the musical confluence where the music of the African, European and Latin cultures merge together to form something new and universal. Adding yet another cultural influence into the stew - composer Steve Hashimoto is an Asian American bassist - whose songs make up 9 of the 12 pieces on this recording. Does this recipe work? It does indeed, and Hashimoto's compositions are so strong and exciting that I was astonished to discover that they were originals and not Latin jazz standards from the songbooks of Tito Puente or Gato Barbieri.

Hashimoto credits his upbringing in the mixed-ethnic Edgewater and Uptown neighborhoods of Chicago as a key to his ability to succeed so well with Latin music, but make no doubt about it, the over 350 gigs a year he plays (when on Earth does he find time to compose?) and the resulting high degree of musicianship doesn't hurt. Having some of the top names in the Chicago Latin Jazz scene onboard helps as well, but credit must be given to the talented composer for putting together these hard hitting arrangements, which allow the soloists to soar, and the songs to sparkle.

There is a wide range of interesting styles on this album, including Afro-Cuban, Brazilian, Spanish, and fusion; and the songs move from hard-charging to sensuous smoldering. The core group has obviously played these songs together enough to absorb the intricacies of the tunes as well as each others' moves: Hashimoto and drummer Heath Chappell - aided by talented percussionists Alejo Poveda, Joe Rendon, and Mark Smith are a powerhouse rhythm section; while steel drummer Joe Sonnefeldt (Smith also plays the tuned pans) adds a welcome breezy Carribean element. Pianist Bob Long is an exceptional player, and guitarist Neal Alger (Mothra, Patricia Barber) adds some edge to the scene with a few burning napalm solos. Finally, reedman Michael Levin is a true revelation: his playing on flute, tenor, alto and soprano saxes and clarinet is sheer delight incarnate. Bari(tone) Barry Winograd, Dan Hesler on tenor, and Steve Thomas on trumpet at times fill out the horn section, while Diane Delin on violin and Kathy Kelly on vibes guest as well, and Argentinian pianist Leandro Lopez-Varady plays on a couple numbers.

Three songs are covered, including the traditional "Enamorado," Ray Baretto's "Acid," and a killer version of the Beatles "Eleanor Rigby." But as great as these versions are, Hashimoto's originals stand up to the challenge. Songs like the title track, "Just Like Julie," "Tango El Gato," "Guajira Mi Mujer" and the fabulous "Linda Linda" are ebullient, while "Desire" is hotly passionate and "Varrio Grande Vista" pulls out the street funk. The beautiful slow piece "Hiroshi" is dedicated to Hashimoto's parents and is a worthy tribute, while in the surprising finale, "Goya", Hashimoto is joined by Michael Kent Smith on nylon-string guitar and Levin on clarinet, in a striking Spanish flamenco flourish. "Azul Oscuro" was engineered and mixed by Sasha Brusin at Swing Odyssey Studios in Evanston, and the sound of this recording is crisp yet warm and very appealing. This is a first class presentation from top to bottom. For fans of Latin Jazz, Hashimoto and his crew have given us a recording that is truly the stuff of Suenos.

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