By: Edward Blanco

Mexican-born producer Jose Rizo has been the Musical Director at KKJZ 88.1 FM (Kjazz) in Long Beach, California for quite some time now. In addition, Rizo has also been the producer and leader of the Jazz on the Latin Side All Stars big band for ten years which have released four critically-acclaimed albums. Mongorama is Rizo’s new nine-piece Latin Jazz ensemble which pays tribute to the legacy of conguero Mongo Santamaria. The self-titled album explores Santamaria’s early charanga-jazz material of the 50s and 60s featuring musicians with a direct connection to Santamaria and the sidemen appearing in his early recordings.

The ensemble is equally adept at performing dynamic progressive Latin jazz music as it is at playing sizzling salsa. Of the twelve highly-charged tunes, eight are pieces previously performed by Santamaria including originals “Las Guajiras” and “Guajira at the Blackhawk.” Rizo chose to kick off the project with “Bacoso,” A Nigerian term meaning “the King is not dead” in reference of course to Mongo. Originally appearing on the master’s Live At the Blackhawk album, it features the great Hubert Laws on a torrid flute solo. The legendary Ponch Sanchez does the honors on the congas on “Asi Es La Vida,” while the terrific saxophonist Justo Almario weighs in on Joao Donato’s “Bluchanga.”

Vocalist Adonis Puentes provides much of the lead vocals through out the disc while Grammy award winner Oscar Hernandez provides the work on piano, Danilo Lozano delivers much of the flute work and others include Ramon Banda on timbales and Dayren Santamaria on violin. One of Santamaria’s most alluring love songs “Siempre En Ti,” is reborn here with beautiful lyrics sung by Puentes and Alfredo Ortiz on back up vocals. “Cruzan” stays squarely in the Latin Jazz category featuring a humble tenor voice from Almario and Lozano on the flute.

The music winds down on swinging salsa beats on such pieces as the moving “Que Maravilloso,” “Guajira at the Blackhawk” and the finale “Tin Marin.” If one is partial to light Latin jazz with an infusion of the salsa sound, then Mongorama is an album that will certainly provide pleasurable moments. Jose Rizo and his new group delivers a clear winner with an amazing tribute to Mongo Santamaria that is both exciting and accessible.

Year: 2011
Label: Saungu Records
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