Barry Harris at Barry Harris' Jazz Cultural Theatre, New York NY 7/21/84 © Brian McMillen www.brianmcmillenphotography.com

Bassist and composer Avishai Cohen is compulsive when it comes to keeping his music on an exploratory journey that reaches past the peripheral shores of jazz. His signature sound is a kaleidoscope of Middle Eastern, eastern European, and progressive Black music stylings. His compositions embrace multiple traditions, cultures, languages, and styles, from Hebrew and Ladino folk songs to jazz standards, to avant garde musings.

At his recent Blue Note jazz club engagement, Cohen introduced audiences to his latest Latin music project Banda Iroko, playing those hot, pulsating Latin rhythms and bringing back the percussive beats of Colgate Gardens and the Palladium.

“Iroko is a longtime dream I have had since knowing and playing with Abraham Rodriguez, Jr., a great, unique singer, conguero, and master of Afro Caribbean music in its full spectrum,” noted Cohen, adding that his dream has been “to do a Latin project with my favorite Latin musicians in New York. It starts with this concept…just me and Abe.” As stated in Bass magazine, “I have assembled this all-star band to now execute live this amazing project Iroko.”

Banda Iroko features “Abe” Rodriguez, Jr. on congas and vocals; drummer and percussionist Horacio “El Negro” Hernandez; saxophonist and chekeré player Yosvany Terry; trumpeter and flugelhorn player Diego Urcola; bongos and vocalist Jose Angel; and vocalist Virginia Alves.

Most of the material performed came from the bassist’s current duo album “Iroko” with native New Yorker and Latin jazz icon Rodriguez and vocalist Virginia Alves. This extended touring ensemble is an amplification of the duo, and the additional instruments bring out more vibrant colors and textures of Cohen and Rodriguez’s recording. This dynamic ensemble has also given them the opportunity to stretch out on some of the tunes, which was not possible in their duo configuration.

During the Blue Note performance, someone leaned over and said to me, “It’s so unfortunate with such great Latin music [that] we can’t dance.” The band was on fire and dancing was not an option, but we all felt that rhythm in our bones, in our toes. Everything is grounded in the propelling clavé rhythm that underlies virtually all Afro-Caribbean music. The field of Latina vocalists has a few doors open and Alves, judging by her live performance, is a prime candidate for the spotlight.

“Iroko” is the 20th album for Israel-based Cohen, but just the third project for Rodriguez, a self-described Nuyorican, Santeria-adept, and doowop-bata rumba king, although he’s infused his secret spices for decades into the best Latin New York recordings. Co-produced by Cohen alongside Latin Grammy-winning producer Javier Limón, it’s as soulful as a street corner serenade in Spanish Harlem.

That Bronx/Harlem flair is definitely in the ingredients, but the roots of Yoruba orishas (spirits that play a key role in the Yoruba religion) are also present. Of the 14 energizing tracks, four are standard covers from various genres; the rendition of James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s World” has been reconstructed into a fierce mid-tempo tune with vocals in Spanish and English (Cohen often sings in Judeo-Spanish “Ladino,” which he learned from his mother) with dancing bass melodies and hypnotic conga beats that won’t quit. The theme from “Exodus” brings out the duo’s vocal harmonizing, and the syncopation of bass and congas swing like a hip summer breeze. The “Exodus Theme” strikes a chord in these times of immigration flux.

And who would ever think Frankie Avalon’s 1959 hit “Venus” would appear on a Latin jazz album? But here it is. Rock & roll “Venus,” wearing a new colorful dress, dancing to fast-paced Latin rhythms and flying conga and bass melodies.

Frank Sinatra’s “Fly Me to the Moon” is reincarnated in the spirit of Latin jazz bass and congas, tinged with a Nuyorican accent.

One of Rodriguez’s teachers was bassist Andy Gonzalez. Abe is a Babala wo priest validated in his mixture of the sacred and secular by his godfather, the bata great Orlando “Puntilla” Rios, who knew bassist Gonzalez and his trumpet/conguero brother Jerry Gonzalez, from the drum circles he sat in with while growing up.

“Abe created a language for himself out of R&B, blues, doo-wop, jazz, and Motown—a world of his own that I wanted to play bass in,” said Cohen. “From beginning to end, just conga, bass, and vocals, and profoundly beautiful songs we could take apart and make our own. Now, when I listen to the groove of it, I want to dance. The essence is there.” The album “Iroko” is dedicated to Andy and Jerry Gonzalez.

The memorial for the prolific pianist, composer, arranger, and educator Barry Harris was held last week (May 10), at St. Peter’s Church (known as the Jazz Church)on Manhattan’s eastside. To no surprise, his final farewell was filled to capacity, standing room only.

When Harris transitioned on December 8, 2021, it was the end of an era. He was the beacon of bebop. He was committed to keeping the language and spirit of bebop living in jazz communities around the world and beyond. It was his mission to keep innovators like Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Thelonious Monk in the forefront of the jazz tradition. He called them “the true originators of improvisation.”

The program included a host of great musicians and friends of Harris: his homegirl and good friend vocalist Sheila Jordan; the exceptional pianist and vocalist Johnny O’Neal performing the heartfelt ballad “Did I Ever Really Live”; a selection by pianist Rossano Sportiello and the Barry Harris Chorus and Orchestra, all in on “Wee Dot” and “Nascimento,” among other selections; blessing by the Rev. Dale R. Lind, jazz pastor emeritus, and the renowned jazz MC Sheila Anderson.

Harris was the epitome of a genius jazz pianist, but just as dear to his heart was sharing his knowledge through teaching. While he was living in Detroit with his mother, musicians who stopped by to study with him included trumpeter Donald Byrd, trombonist Curtis Fuller, saxophonist Joe Henderson, and John Coltrane, who would visit during his Detroit performances. Two young musicians into the R&B sound who regularly stopped by were Motown studio artists bassist James Jameson and pianist Earl Van Dyke.

For more than 20 years, Harris held weekly music instructions on Manhattan’s westside. When COVID hit the world, he took to Zoom instructions and still managed to get 200 people or more to tune in. On quite a few occasions, I visited his workshops. At least 100 students and experienced musicians would attend these sessions, some of whom included Rodney Kendrick, Jimmy Lovelace, and Bill Saxton. What amazed me was Harris would have everyone set up in groups according to instruments, and the vocalist would convene. He would go around to each group, giving advice, answering questions, having them play or sing a tune, and then offering his comments.

Having the opportunity to observe Dr. Harris in action was a learning experience I will never forget, along with our many conversations. What we all learned from him will be used and passed on, and his many recordings will continue to keep us focused and swinging. Please visit the website barryharrisinstituteofjazz.org.

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