Vibraphonist/percussionist/bandleader Cal Tjader said it right when he claimed “I am not an innovator. I am not a pathfinder. I am a participator.” While he never pushed the envelope of Afro-Cuban music, he did
go a long way in popularizing it. With albums like La Onda Va Bien
winning a Grammy award, the humble Tjader managed to bring a wider audience to the music, much the same way Dizzy Gillespie did. The Best of the Concord Years
brings together two disks worth of some of Tjader’s best latter-period material, recorded right up until his untimely passing at the age of fifty-seven in 1982.
Tjader, in fact, was responsible for reviving a sagging genre when he collaborated with Concord Records president Carl Jefferson to start its Concord Picante sub-label. Tjader’s signing brought in others, including Mongo Santamaria, Tito Puente and, notably, Poncho Sanchez, who got his start in Tjader’s bands of the late ‘70s; and the five recordings Tjader made as leader between 1979 and 1982 represent some of his best work.
Tjader will not be remembered as a particularly outstanding or trend-setting vibraphonist; nevertheless there is certain joyfulness in his playing, and the multitude of Latin feels represented in this collection give him every opportunity to shine, as do regular band members Mark Levine on piano, drummer Vince Lateano, bassist Rob Fisher, percussionists Poncho Sanchez and Ramon Banda, and either flautist Roger Glenn or saxophonist/flautist Gary Foster, who appear on the lion’s share of the tracks. The group generates some real excitement on “Shoshana” and “Santo Domingo,” tracks penned by Levine from Good Vibes and A Fuego Vivo , two live sessions which represent the best material in the collection.
Guests include Carmen McRae, Hank Jones and Scott Hamilton, but it is Tjader’s working band that really brings the music to life. From the up-tempo “Serengeti” to the bolero-like interpretation of Coltrane’s “Naima”; from the tender “Close Enough for Love,” which features guest guitarist Mundell Lowe, to the medium tempo “Roger’s Samba,” Tjader demonstrates that keeping a consistent band together to evolve a deeper chemistry is far more than half the battle.
The Best of the Concord Years will not rattle any cages, but it is a solid collection of some of Tjader’s finest material, culled from a period where he was graced with a sympathetic and empathic ensemble. Lightweight but thoroughly enjoyable, this collection is as good a place to start as any for listeners curious to hear an artist who may have only considered himself a participator, but who still deserves a place in jazz history for popularizing a style and laying the foundation for the emergence of other fine Afro-Cuban artists.
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Personnel: Cal Tjader (vibes), Mark Levine (piano, Fender Rhodes), Roger Glenn (flute, percussion), Gary Foster (soprano saxophone, flute), Vince Lateano (drums, timbales, percussion), Rob Fisher (bass), Poncho Sanchez (congas, percussion), Carmen McRae (vocals), Ramon Banda (timbales, percussion), Al Bent (trombone), Mike Heathman (trombone), Mundell Lowe (guitar), Hank Jones (piano), Scott Hamilton (tenor saxophone), Dean Reilly (bass)