With a resume that includes names like Fort Apache Band frontman-trumpeter Jerry Gonzalez, flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucia, the late vocalist Celia Cruz and keyboardist Chucho Valdes's band Irakere, it's even more remarkable that Alain Perez has earned these credentials only in the last dozen years. Born in Cuba, conservatory-trained as a classical guitarist, the 29-year-old bassist broke through when he was tapped to play in Irakere at age 17. After immigrating to Spain, Perez began exploring a new idiom in his work with de Lucia. While applying his classical guitar knowledge to his bass, Perez shows his admiration for modern innovators of the instrument who helped unlock its possibilities and brought its voice to the foreground -- Jaco Pastorius, John Patitucci and Victor Wooten. As you'd expect with many low-end virtuosi, Perez gets compared to Jaco a lot, but he has a lot more than his influences to show in his music.
With a band of expat Cubans currently based in Barcelona (where the Ayva label is also located), Perez brandishes some wicked bass chops as well as potent arranging skills on En el Aire. The opening title cut boasts a bright horn fanfare peppered with polyrhythmic percussion and a slinky, driving B-section. Perez patiently builds his ideas, beginning with gentle melodies and gradually incorporating more forceful, funky figures. Trumpeter Carlos Sarduy's strong, brassy lines head paradoxically into darker melodic territory. The beauty of the looser "120 & 9" is Ivan Lewis "Melon"'s airy piano floating over the drums, cushioning the light horn melody. His leisurely and sunny solo is followed by Inoidel Gonzales's like-minded soprano sax feature, prodded on by Perez underneath. The high-low dialogue of the latter two is also the attraction of "Descansa El Sol (The Sun Rests)." Bass and soprano slip into and out of melodic lines together over a velvety bed of Rhodes and spacious drums that give off a modern R&B vibe.
From an arranging standpoint, the album's standout track is "Donna Lee," which opens with a radiant, breezy two-chord piano vamp with a vocal-and-horn melody on top. In Perez's hands, this is a completely new song. Charlie Parker's original melody is actually treated like an extended fill rather than the centerpiece of the tune, and it's remarkable how well it fits in a Latin jazz context. With a slight nod to Stanley Clarke's chordal approach in parts, he gives a thoughtful, hushed solo with ideas both lyrical and linear or funky and fragmented. Roman Filiu gets a chance to shine here with a sinewy, insistent alto sax tone and probing lines. Powerful voices also surface on "La Razon," an artfully stuttering chart punctuated by keyboard jabs, elliptical horn lines and memorable vocal melody. Pianist Pepe Rivero's ideas sing over the rhythm section, and Gonzales's voice on tenor sax is full of dark fire.
While En el Aire obviously has well-grounded Latin roots, it also has clear modern jazz values, and Perez and his cohorts comfortably straddle the line between both worlds. And even with seemingly rigid polyrhythmic, Latinized structures, there's a certain looseness about the music here -- the coolly contemporary harmony, infectious melodies and that edge of discovery.
En el Aire (Ayva)
Alain Perez (b, voc, kbds, perc)
Carlos Sarduy (tp)
Roman Filiu (as)
Inoidel Gonzales (ss, ts)
Javier Masso “Caramelo” (kbds)
Ivan Lewis “Melon” (kbds)
Pepe Rivero (kbds)
Georvis Pico (d)
Kiki Ferrer (d)
Pepe Espinosa (perc)