A Tour Of The Best New Latin Jazz

Jul 7, 2019
Originally published on July 7, 2019 9:31 am

For our monthly visit with Weekend Edition, the native language is jazz as we move around the Spanish-speaking world in search of new music from voices both new and long-beloved.

We discuss jazz legend Chick Corea, who has revisited his love of music from Spain on a new album; Brazilian pianist Marcos Silva takes a lead role for the first time in 30 years; Chilean Camila Meza is a triple threat as a guitarist/vocalist/composer; Cristina Morrison is both a vocalist and popular actress in Ecuador; and newcomer Nella shows what can happen when you grow up on a small island off the coast of Venezuela, singing along to Celine Dion and Mariah Carey.

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Let's take a few moments now to lose ourselves in some fabulous music like that by making our monthly check-in with Felix Contreras of the Alt.Latino podcast.

Felix, welcome.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: Usually, you bring in new tracks from the world of Latin alternative. But this month, you're listening to something a little different.

CONTRERAS: Listening to Latin jazz - a lot of it lately. And what it has in common with the usual stuff I bring in is amazing creativity and vision, but in this case, lots of instrumental prowess.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So who are we starting with?

CONTRERAS: We're starting with Chick Corea. Now, Chick is a giant walking the Earth. Future generations of jazz fans will speak of him as we do of John Coltrane or Charlie Parker. He's that big of a deal. He's very creative. He's very visionary. He's a pianist, and he's a composer. Now, Chick Corea's not from Spain, although he famously recorded and wrote a tune called "Spain" on one of his very first albums. And the only time he referenced that for an entire album was his 1976 release called "My Spanish Heart." And his new album is called "Antidote." And he revisits his fascination with flamenco. This track is Part II of a suite called "The Yellow Nimbus." It's a taste of what the whole album feels like. It features the guitarist Niño Josele.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: OK. What's next?

CONTRERAS: In honor of the time you spent in Brazil covering Latin America for NPR - some Brazilian jazz. This is pianist and composer Marcos Silva. And he has an album called "Brasil: From Head To Toe." And it's his first album in 30 years. He's a very talented arranger and pianist. And he's worked with other artists like Flora Purim and Airto, two other Brazilian jazz legends. He's worked with Cuban saxophonist Paquito D'Rivera. He's really the biggest catalyst of the Brazilian music scene in the Bay Area. And for 20 years, he's been teaching at a conservatory in Berkeley, Calif., so he's been busy. And he had a lot to say on this record. It came out a while back, but I think it's worth mentioning because it's a significant release by a musician who's a major dude in this music. This track is called "In 7&2," and it's a reference to the time signature of the tune. Check it out.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: Takes me right back to Brazil.

CONTRERAS: Doesn't it?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, it really does.

CONTRERAS: He's very talented. I'm really glad he had the chance to put this record out. Next, we're going to go to Chile - Camila Meza. She's a guitarist, vocalist and composer. Her new album is called "Ambar." It's credited to Camila Meza and The Nectar Orchestra. I really like this artist and this album. It's the best expression of the scope of her talents. I've been following her for a while - poetic lyrics. She has a string quartet and a piano, bass, drums accompaniment but not with the usual jazz context.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So what of hers did you bring?

CONTRERAS: OK, this is a cover of a song called "This Is Not America." It's a song written by Pat Metheny and David Bowie for the film "Falcon And The Snowman." And Camila Meza turns that into a very musical rumination on current events.


CAMILA MEZA: (Singing) Promise not to stare too long for this is not the miracle. There was a time, a storm that blew so pure for this could be the biggest sky. I could have the faintest idea...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So far, we've been on quite an international musical trail - Brazil, Chile, Spain. Is there a common thread?

CONTRERAS: What ties all this music together for me is that it stretches the label of Latin jazz beyond its original source of Afro-Cuban music. The idea of mixing jazz and Latin music, some say, was developed here in the United States - in New York in the 1940s and '50s, when Cuban musicians like Chano Pozo and Machito started jamming and composing with jazz musicians like Dizzy Gillespie. And I got to say within the last 15 or 20 years, musicians from the Caribbean and all throughout South America and Spain - they've begun mixing their own folk traditions. And they've opened this huge, great musical doorway into cultural expression using jazz and improvised music as its base.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So where to next?

CONTRERAS: Cuba by way of Ecuador and Brazil.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That sounds like quite a mix.

CONTRERAS: This is vocalist Cristina Morrison. She grew up both in Ecuador and Miami. Her album is called "Impredecible: Voces De Mujer" - "Unpredictable: The Voices Of Women." It's a series of duets with other vocalist from the U.S. and Latin America. She's a fascinating artist. She has an extensive acting career in film and television in Ecuador. This track features another favorite of mine - Magos Herrera from Mexico - on a song made popular in Cuba. Let's see if you recognize it.


CRISTINA MORRISON: (Singing in Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: "Dos Gardenias," wow.

CONTRERAS: See; and that's - and see; that's what's the magic of this music because they take something that's familiar, and they rearrange it...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: From Buena Vista Social Club.

CONTRERAS: Right - and do something very creative with it. And I really like this particular track. The whole album is fantastic.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I can't imagine where we're going next.

CONTRERAS: Venezuela, with a stop in Spain.



NELLA: (Singing in Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Ah, this I really love.


NELLA: (Singing in Spanish).

CONTRERAS: I always bring one that really gets to you. This is the debut album by a vocalist named Nella, who's from a small island off the coast of Venezuela called Isla de Margarita. And she grew up singing along with Christina Aguilera, Celine Dion and Mariah Carey as a kid. She studied performance at the Berklee School of Music in Boston. Her album is called "Voy," and it's produced by Spanish guitarist, producer Javier Limón, so there's a lot of Spanish influence but a lot of it is her own sound. The track we're listening to is called "Me Llaman Nella." It's a great album.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Felix Contreras, our musical tour guide. He joins us once a month. And the rest of the time, he is producing and hosting the Alt.Latino podcast from NPR Music. Check it out.

Felix, thank you so much.

CONTRERAS: Thanks as always. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.