Thursday, March 22, 2018

Jemal Ramirez and his band romp through 'African Skies'

The cover of San Francisco-based drummer's new CD.
With a basis of public-school responsibilities for his day job, drummer-bandleader Jemal Ramirez makes musical points in the public sphere in addition to his vital work in music education.

His latest CD, "African Skies" (Joyful Beat Records), finds him anchoring his usual quintet, notable for the inclusion of the perpetually relevant vibraphonist Warren Wolf. But it's also important to emphasize, on the evidence of this disc and its predecessor, "Pomponio" (2015), that the Ramirez band is a real team. Star power is not what keeps both discs worth hearing. It's the collective energy and program choices that bring out the cohesiveness of the ensemble as well as the solo chops within.

Variety in unity and vice versa: In "Latina," for example Howard Wiley's alto solo heats things up feverishly before Wolf's canny vibraphone notions cool things down. Yet Ramirez's drums keep things simmering behind the vibes, so that the overall performance maintains consistent fervor.

Nonetheless, I can't resist drawing special attention to Wolf. As he rides the Latin pulse of "A Good Time," for example, how deft he is at coming up with little bits of original melody to tie together his ideas! When the band comes in behind his inspired soloing, the effect is electric. There's also a good tenor solo from Wiley.

And, though the contributions of trumpeter Mike Olmos are cogent on four of the 10 tracks, there's a progression evident to my ears from Olmos' rather generic solo on "It Always Is" through the more focused playing of pianist Matthew Clark to Wolf's unerringly eloquent solo. Then, having a high plane of pertinence behind it,  the ensemble erupts in a wild coda with simultaneous improvising by the horns.

The teamwork at its lyrical best comes through in "A Long Way Home," an original ballad by Wolf, Wiley, and Ramirez, with atmospheric mallets on tom-toms setting the mood and smooth soprano-sax lyricism from Wiley complementing the estimable Wolf. The vibist gets a soulful showcase to himself in "Save Your Love for Me," which follows immediately.

The group confidence is illustrated by how securely the band plays around the familiar tune of "Speak Low" before Wolf states the theme. This is a band (bassist John Shiflett is fundamental to its success, too) that's comfortable in its skin and able to communicate the fact without special pleading or bizarre trickery.

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