Francisco Mela & Cuban Safari: Tree Of Life (2011)
A safari, in essence, is all about the idea of an encounter between the tamed, usually in the form of adventure-seeking humans, and the wild, which they aim to explore. The same could be said for the music that drummer Francisco Mela creates with Cuban Safari on Tree Of Life. For his third solo outing, the Cuban-born drummer, best known for his work as part of the two drummer-and-bass team that anchors saxophonist Joe Lovano's Us Five outfit, assembled a diverse group of instrumentalists to help him flesh out his own brand of music, which blends fusion, African-leaning world music and post-modern jazz ideals in myriad ways.
On a program which favors Mela originals, yet features music from such disparate sources as pianist Jason Moran ("Retrograde") and Hoagy Carmichael ("The Nearness Of You"), the drummer achieves a rare balance between sophistication and abandon, as he delivers irrepressible rhythmic layers behind, between and around the rest of his band. He's comfortable delivering bashing, rock-based beats ("Africa En Mis Venas") and choppy, broken rhythms ("Retrograde"), but that's not all he does. Mela also thrives in tribalistic settings, as he mixes it up with percussionists Mauricio Herrera and Arturo Stable ("Fiesta Conga"), and full-on fusion assaults ("Yo Me"). He even mans the microphone on a few occasions, delivering dreamy Spanish-language vocals over a gentle bed of piano during the introduction for the album-closing "Gracias A La Vida," and English-language vocals on "The Nearness Of You."
While the back panel lists eleven different musicians on the date, and all those involved play an important part in this music when they make an appearance, some stand out more than others. Pianist Elio Villafranca shows incredible range, as he moves from spiky and delightfully disjointed soloing ("Retrograde") to placid accompanying over the course of the album, and guitarist Ben Monder delivers some other-worldly sounds, living up to his reputation as a master sonic craftsmen. Saxophonist Uri Gurvich is superb at every turn, and Jowee Omicil's scorching soprano work helps to fuel the fire on "Yo Me." Esperanza Spalding makes a guest appearance on "Yadan Mela," but she leaves the bass duties to Peter Slavov, as she delivers wordless vocals, which simply ooze soul, over an invigorating, Pan-African backdrop.
While Mela's band might be called Cuban Safari, the music they create isn't stranded on that lone expanse of land located ninety miles south of Miami. Mela's music encompasses everything that he has encountered, making the Tree Of Life a sonic safari through the worldwide wilds of jazz and beyond.
Track Listing: Retrograde; Africa En Mis Venas; Toma Del Ponder; Yadan Mela; Classico Mela; The Nearness Of You; Yo Me; Just Now; Fiesta Conga; Gracias A La Vida.
Personnel: Francisco Mela: drums, vocals; Elio Villafranca: piano; Leo Genovese: piano; Uri Gurvich: saxophone; Ben Monder: guitar; Luques Curtis: bass; Mauricio Herrera: percussion; Esperanza Spalding: vocals (4); Peter Slavov: bass; Arturo Stable: percussion; Jowee Omicil: saxophone.