Album 13 – Machito

ALBUM TITLE:  Kenya

ARTIST NAME: Machito

YEAR OF RELEASE: 1958

Favourite Song:

Holly: Kenya

Kelly: Holiday

ALBUM HISTORY:

This album comes from a time when Hollywood used afro-cuban jazz for a lot of things – suspense, bombastic chase scenes, and really anything even vaguely exotic. There were a lot of dime-a-dozen afro-cuban bands around, and albums, and gigs. However, Machito was different. He was stubbornly true to his music, while also being willing to stretch the limits of the genre with dramatic twists and turns. This album combines Machito’s intimate knowledge of afro-cuban music with some of the biggest jazz musicians of the time.

ARTIST HISTORY:

Machito is hard to pin down. His birth name was Francisco Raul Gutierrez Grillo, but he gave conflicting accounts of his early life. Sometimes he said he was a native Cuban from Havana, and other accounts say he was born in Tampa, Florida. His birth year is also a mystery; he was born in either 1908, 1909, 1912, or 1915.

Regardless, Machito grew up in Havana with his foster sister, the jazz singer Graciela, and both were raised by Graciela’s parents. His nickname growing up was Macho because he was the first son born after three daughters. In his teens and twenties, Macho played in several ensembles throughout Cuba. 

Machito moved to New York City in 1937 through his position as a vocalist in the Havana Stars. Three years later he started his own band with a big band-style brass section, and after some infighting became the musical director of the Afro-Cubans, a role that he retained for 34 years. 

The Afro-Cubans really were groundbreaking. They were among the first groups to fuse Afro-Cuban rhythms with jazz arrangements and improvisation. Machito was the frontman and maraca player, and they hired jazz-oriented arrangers to provide them with new charts. As a result, the music of Machito was a huge inspiration for musicians like Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and Stan Kenton. 

When Machito was drafted into the United States Army, the band brought Machito’s foster sister up from Havana to sing, and even after Machito’s discharge a year later, the two would switch off songs and create duets. Soon the group was recording with Stan Kenton, Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington, and Lester Young. 

FACTOID CORNER:

  • Machito also played trumpet and alto saxophone
  • The Afro-Cubans was the first multi-racial band in the United States

Holly’s review:

This album is new to me, and I’m very excited to be listening to it! I really enjoy some afro-cuban jazz, and there are some all star players on this album. So let’s dig right in.

The album starts off with a tune called Wild Jungle which is a high energy, thrilling tune that is jammed full of percussion. Of course, I love all the brass shots and everything throughout, and just how energized this feels. For me the percussion breaks, though cool, sometimes go a little long, but I love how balanced the percussion is to the brass – especially the congas.

Next up is Congo Mulence, which features some Cannonball Adderly on alto sax. I love the chiller mood of this one, the upright bass line, and the clarity you can hear between the different percussion instruments. I also love when a band is not scared to use silence as a dramatic effect. Adderly sounds great on this track, and the whole band is incredibly tight. 

Coming up, we chill things down even further with a trombone feature: Kenya. I love the sound of the trombone on this track, love the percussion interplay, and respect the super ballsy and aggressive bari sax tone throughout. The percussion break is so unexpected, and I love the double time feel with the brass coming back in and then the quick build up which smooths right back out again with the trombone entrance – this short song is a great little journey!

Oyeme is next up. This one is a little tougher to peg down. The beginning is very cool, because the claves make you assume it’s another downtempo number, until the rest of the band comes in to prove you wrong. The intensity continues to rise through this one. There’s something about the sound of the brass in this one that I don’t love as much as some of the others.

Following Oyeme is Holiday – a little pleasant hold music of a number that passes this happy little melody through different instruments and instrument groups. It’s kind of cheesy, but in a really smiley, happy, undeniably good way! This is the kind of cheesy that I like! I love the use of the different mutes in the trumpets and trombones, and the harmonies in the saxophones in this one!

Next up is Cannonology. This is about where I really start craving a slow slow ballad, but I don’t know if that’s going to happen on this record. This is a Cannonball Adderly feature and he sounds great, as usual. The percussion break in this one is very cool with some metallic sounds, and different pitches going on plus all of the polyrhythmic ideas, which is super neat. 

Frenzy is just an absolute intense drive of a tune. I don’t want to take away from this tune or any of the other tunes on this album, but I would love to hear some slow, sexy numbers in here as well. Still, though, this one is fun. I love the build up after every percussion break and the balance with the upright bass in this tune. 

Up next: Blues a la Machito, which is a slightly slower, but still intense blues. There’s a lot of cognitive dissonance in this one that I kind of like, some of the melodies are very upbeat and happy, but still are a bit bluesy. The brass feel like they’re always playing a shout chorus, and it gets a little yelly for a while for me, but it’s still great fun!

Conversation is a conversation between different groups in the band, and is really interesting. This is the first tune that really feels like the percussion are kind of in the background, and the horns take over the track. This track feels a little forgettable in the grand scheme of this album.

Next is Tin tin deo, which has a cool-drink-on-a-hot-day feel to it that I really like. I really like the sound of the trombones on this album, and for me their tone and feel carry this tune. 

Minor Rama is up next, and my attention flags a bit as we get to these last songs on the album. I feel like this group would have been absolutely amazing to see live, but just like anything else that sounds fairly similar in concept, I crave some variety!

Last tune on the album is Tururato. This one is another fun one. I’m realizing there are a lot of trumpet and alto sax solos in this album, and little to none from bari sax, tenor sax, bass, trombone, etc. I feel like that’s maybe a missed opportunity for some variety in timbres.

Overall, this album is tons of fun! I’ll definitely be adding it to my to-buy list, and am so glad it did not fall into any of the tropes and stereotypes that afro-cuban music can often fall into. My one criticism is that there are no slinky ballads, or anything slow and mysterious, but overall this is a ton of fun to listen to!

Kelly’s review:

I really like Afro-Cuban music, so I was excited to hear some really early songs from the genre.  Honestly I had never heard of Machito before listening to this album so it was neat to learn about one of the pioneers. 

First up is Wild Jungle, which is a pretty accurate title!  It’s high energy, lots of fun and gets the album started off on a fun foot.  There’s a good trombone solo early on, and extended percussion breaks.  Although the song is almost 3 minutes long, it feels like it passes by in a matter of seconds!

Next is Congo Mulence.  What I’ve noticed about the band so far, especially with this song is the super strong and tight brass section.  They all play super together and cleanly.  Anyway, there’s a great alto (yes?) sax solo in this song that fits the slower, more ominous mood really well, and it’s accented by that great brass section.  I really enjoyed the muted trumpet solo as well.

Then we have the eponymous Kenya, and it starts off very dramatically before moving on to a more mellow and smooth tone before a surprising double time section in the middle.  This one has more of a defined melody than the previous two songs, like there should be lyrics to it.  I really notice the baritone sax in this song and he’s really just taking no prisoners!  Again, the brass section is just so tight.  This song really takes you on a journey.

Oyeme begins with claves in the most clave rhythm ever.  There’s another good sax solo followed by another good trumpet solo but it was at this point that I was like “oh no.  The songs are starting to blend together a little bit”.  This song, although performed very well, just wasn’t my favourite.  I don’t love the brass shots and interludes in this song, something about the tonality doesn’t sit right with me.  

Holiday is next and it’s a little bit different.  It has a way more relaxed and chill fun feel to it.  I like that it starts with the theme, then repeats it but the brass is muted for a bit of variety.  It feels like a song that would be really good to dance to.  Like Kenya, this one has more of a defined melody than just brass shots, solos and percussion interludes.  I’ve noticed again that that bari sax player is just noodling away, holding his own and sounds like he’s having a great time.  I feel like the band would sound totally different without him!

When Cannonology started I was like “ooooops have I already listened to this one?”.  It starts with brass, but instead of a sax solo followed by trumpet solo, this song is all saxophone, and it’s a great solo!  Of course there’s a percussion interlude in the middle of the song.  Like the first number I felt like this song was over a little too quickly, like I could have done with another verse of sax solo!

Frenzy is exactly that.  Fast, frantic and could have been messy if it were left in any lesser band’s hands.  The percussion keeps the song moving and driving and it sounds like the drum kit is trying his darndest to keep up with the percussionist just madly banging away on the congas.  There’s a few stressed sounding band bits, but the real star here is the percussionist.  The song ends with a final two screechy shots and it’s all over as quickly as it started.  

I was excited to see Blues a La Machito was next because I was craving something slow and sweaty and sultry and although this song is slower, it’s not the palette cleanser that I needed.  It definitely has less of a percussion feature and is less frantic than a lot of the other songs.  There’s a strong trumpet solo throughout a good portion of the song.  I’m not sure I would call this a ‘blues’ in the traditional way (what the heck to do I know), it has more of that sort of old time-y stripper-esque type of feel.  I like it though.

Next is Conversation, and right away I really liked the conga rhythm.  This is another song that has more of a defined melody.  It has the by now predictable solo section, but this time it’s trumpet followed by sax.  I kind of forgot that I was listening to this song until it was over, so we can safely say that it was a forgettable track!

Then Tin Tin Deo comes on with a BEAUTIFUL trombone feature and I do not say that very often!  This is one of the more laid back tracks on the album, and at this point I KNOW the horns are damn good, but can you guys just cool it for like 3 minutes?  There’s another trumpet solo, but I wish there had been more of the trombone solo because it was a nice balm to the increasingly abrasive sounding brass section.

Once again with Minor Rama I’m feeling like I may have already heard this song.  Big ballsy brass, percussion, trumpet solo.  I honestly don’t have much to say about this song that I haven’t already said about similar sounding songs on the album.

And finally we have Tururato.  At the beginning it almost sounds like an Afro-Cuban Tequila.  The little melody grows and grows little by little, until at its climax we have brass shots, followed by – you guessed it – a sax solo, percussion interlude and then trumpet solo.  It does have another good sax solo towards the end, but honestly I had checked out of this album mostly by then and would have to restart the song in order to refocus and really listen to it.  The ending, for being the last song on the album, is quite abrupt and made me say, oh that was it?

I feel a little bit conflicted about this album.  The songs individually are very good, the musicians are all talented and amazing, but all the songs together, one after the other, feels too decadent and overwhelming, to the point where I began to tune out.  Had there been more variety of tempo or mood it may have kept my interest longer but I can’t overtly say I loved the album.  I really liked the songs, but put all together, the album is just ok for me.

Average grade out of 10:

Holly: 8/10

Kelly: 7/10

Link to the album on Spotify:

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