Robin Jones Latin Jazz Sextet
It's a rare opportunity for me to review an Exotica record whose origin isn't American… and it will remain a rare opportunity, for Mojito by the Robin Jones Latin Jazz Sextet isn't an Exotica record in the strict sense, but as you may have guessed, a Latin Jazz record, this time from the United Kingdom. I still feel the need to review and put it in the respective section because all of the 7 pieces are original compositions, and all of them are energetic and evoke that Latin feeling way better than Easy Listening heavy-weight Bert Kaempfert could on That Latin Feeling. You won't find a vibraphone anywhere on the album, but bandleader Robin Jones himself plays the congas and makes sure that there is room enough for this particularly exotic percussive instrument to shine. Since most of the tracks are very long – three cross the 10-minute mark –, the compositions are loaded with improvisations, soli and delicious interplays. The sextet consists of Steve Waterman on the trumpet, Nick Walter on the flute and saxophone, Chris Kibble on the piano, Adam Riley on the drums and Otis Wolstenholme on the bass. Having worked with illustrous acts such as The Petshop Boys, Sade and Moby, Robin Jones is probably most known for his Latin Jazz numbers. Their energy and style capture the true spirits of Brazilian and Mexican Latin music, but they are also spiced and altered with the help of several guest musicians, among them Hammond organ legend Paul Birchall. Let's see what Mojito has to offer.
The 11+ minute long East Walk starts with a blast: shimmering, cheeky brass notes signal the elucidating mood, the accompanying piano backings further amplify the Latin style, and Robin Jones himself starts with a short, playful conga solo, careful not to reach the climax in the first minute already. Seconds later, Walter's saxophone is in the limelight and makes room for Waterman's cheekily played trumpet notes. The title of the song thus hints at its structure: the walk consists of several soli and spotlight sections for each band member, and it is thanks to its long duration that nothing feels rushed or overly compressed. My favorite part is the most reduced one, with Kibble on the piano playing vivid, freely flowing melodies. The heat increases near the end with Riley's hectical drums and Jones' distinct congas. All in all a classic tune that doesn't focus on the interplay but the respective artist's strengths on his signature instrument and its presentation. However, the teamplay becomes an important factor on the next track, Miles Below, where the tempo is reduced and is almost similar to a brassy hip hop scheme. Paul Birchall adds stylish sustained Hammond organ backings, and the staccato nature of sudden tone bursts by all instrumentalists makes this a natural big city theme. The focus clearly lies on the brass instruments and the Hammond organ, while no memorable melody is featured in contrast to East Walk. However, this song is equally successful in presenting a glistening atmosphere which is less Latin. Peckham Royalty, on the other hand, is a pitch-perfect Latin song with typical, slightly cacophonous piano notes, rhythm shifts and joyful brass blasts. The improvised piano intersections are particularly lively and fitting, and the final phase of the song is keen on hi-hats and cymbals, ending things befittingly with an intensified crescendo.
Manteca (translated as butter or lard) features a samba mood with the usual brass soli, both boldly dirty and incisively clean, but also surprisingly euphonious counterpoints which are the best parts as they are signature features of this particular song. The conga percussion is turned up a notch during the end, and I would love to see their light-footed appearance as a permanent inclusion to the song, as they add plasticity to the mix. Christophe introduces another shift, with gentler, lounge-like piano backings that form the mellow background of an otherwise hot-blooded Latin song with coruscating trumpets and sneaky piano chords. Pardon My Poché is a quickly-paced song with a saxophone main melody and the most interesting backings that are constituted by liquid percussion and piano fragments. The final centerpiece and the most exciting song is Mojito, as it consists of a gorgeous, 3+ minute long conga solo whose duration is longer than a lot of Exotica songs in their entirety. Voluminous brass sections mark the end of the solo and introduce the most melodious song next to East Walk. The polyphonous brass interplay is smoother and more mellow, only occasionally interrupted by a loud blast. Near the end of the 12+ minute song, a distinctive bass melody is played by Wolstenhome, and it is the first time on the album that his skills are featured this blatantly. Even though a good bassist blends with his surroundings, it is a nice inclusion shortly before the grand final where all instrumentalists play together one last time.
As with most music genres, Latin music is highly addictive in the right doses, but potentially nerve-wrecking due to its typically eclectic piano melodies and brass motifs – it is also oftentimes hard to catch and to then follow a particular melody or theme, for Jones' music is always eclectic and shifting. Mojito, however, gives fans of Latin music a treat in quality and quantity: all compositions are unique and very long, giving the musicians time to interact with each band mate and to present and alter subthemes and variations. In the strictest sense, one could call Mojito an album full of clichés. This time, though, I would beg to differ, for there are only so many elements that can be added to that Latin style. Without any exception the sextet presents upbeat, hot-blooded songs which make this an exquisitely coherent party album. Best of all are the vivid melodies and the respective counterparts, and each song inherits the good mood everyone seemed to have in the studio. East Walk is easily accessible and a great introduction to the Latin genre. Virtually all remaining songs are way more complex, but never harsh-sounding or offensively nested. In the end, it is clear that this is no Exotica album in the strictest sense, but it inherits all ingredients and instruments that are found in a lot of this genre's albums. It depends on your personal opinion whether you consider Latin music as a sub niche of Exotica or a distinct column of the Jazz universe. Mojito delivers hot-tempered sounds and exotic congas in any way.
Exotica Review 041: Robin Jones Latin Jazz Sextet – Mojito (2007). Originally published on Feb. 25, 2012 at AmbientExotica.com.