In The Ear of the Beholder
Jazz Magnet Records JAM-2003

Way back in the early 1960s, on part of his "Latin" album WHAT'S NEW Sonny Rollins recorded a few tracks, backed by only a bassist and a conga drummer, where he took more musical liberties than you'd expect with that sort of material. This interesting trio session from alto saxophonist Jorge Sylvester is somewhat similar to that disc.

As a Panamanian with Jamaican and Belizian relatives, Sylvester is a lot closer to the Caribbean than Rollins, with his family's roots in St. Thomas. But the way the alto saxophonist, electric bass guitarist Donald Nicks and drummer Bobby Sanabria approach the material reflects the older saxophonist's ideas. Rather than being a Latin-Jazz session, this is a CD made by jazz musicians with Latin roots.

The distinction may seem subtle, but it means that everything here doesn't have to sound as if it was turned out by some frilly-shirt wearing, pseudo Ricky Ricardo, metaphorically dropping ba-ba-lus into every bar. Instead this is straight-ahead jazz performed by capable musicians who are proud enough of their heritage to reference it in all parts of their playing. That's probably why the group is called the Afro-Caribbean Experimental Trio, not Jorge Sylvester's Latin or Afro-Cuban band.

Throughout, especially on tunes like "Tambor - The Mix" and the title tune, the three manage to approximate what Rollins, bassist Bob Cranshaw and conga drummer Candido were doing almost 40 years ago. Nicks creates the rhythmic bottom with an unvarying bass line, Sylvester elaborates the melody on top and Sanabria uses all the North, Central and South American percussion at his disposal to decorate the lines. Things are a little more modern however. On the calypso "Shy Mangoose" — which has a jazz lineage, having been recorded by Charlie Parker in 1952 — the bassist even uses R&B-style thumb pops to keep things moving along.

The altoist, who spent 10 years living in Spain before moving to New York, doesn't play with a stereotypical Latin or Caribbean sound either. While he's no avant gardist, his tone is certainly harsher and more jarring than you would hear in a samba or reggae band.

Unfortunately, though, the bare bones concept which make IN THE EAR OF THE BEHOLDER so distinctive as a jazz-Latin album also conspires to keep it out of the highest rank. At nearly 76 minutes, the limitation of using only three instruments quickly shows. A good 15 minutes could have been sliced without affecting the program and to prevent the tunes from starting to sound alike. Another idea may have been to hire another soloist.

Maybe that's an idea for next time though. For the trio members and Sylvester in particular have shown that a new way of approaching Latinized Jazz exists. It will be interesting to see what they produce next.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1.Tambor - The Mix 2.Sly Mangoose 3.Corazon Rebelde 4. Por La Clave 5. In The Ear of the Beholder - Por La Clave Part II 6. Songoajira 7.King's Highway 8.Tropicando

Personnel: Jorge Sylvester (alto saxophone, voice, hand claps, cuica vocal effects, maracas and cowbell); Donald Nicks (electric bass guitar); Bobby Sanabria (drums, bells)