Michael Spiro: What’s On Your Playlist?

September 5, 2014

2photo_by__Scott-ChernisInternationally renowned percussionist Michael Spiro is an eight-time Grammy nominee whose rhythmic sophistication and musical chops have earned him a well-deserved reputation as one of the top percussionists on today’s Latin music scene. Over the past three decades, Spiro has distinguished himself as a player, producer, educator, and bandleader. He’s played a central role on a series of seminal recordings, working with the likes of Mark Levine and the Latin Tinge, Orquesta La Moderna Tradicion, Bata-Mbira, and Grupo Ilu-Aña, and performing on Bata Ketu.

As a session musician, he’s played on soundtracks for major feature films and documentaries, contributed arrangements to the Tony Award winning Broadway production Blast!, and collaborated with a wide array of artists, including Clark Terry, McCoy Tyner, David Byrne, Cachao, Changuito, Frank Emilio Flynn, Ella Fitzgerald, David Garibaldi, Gilberto Gil, Giovanni Hidalgo, Toninho Horta, Bobby Hutcherson, Chico O’Farrill, Eddie Palmieri, and Charlie Watts.

Spiro divides his time between the Bay Area and Bloomington, Indiana where he has been a tenured faculty member at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music since 2011.  His latest disc, Ritmos Unidos, features a dazzling array of African diaspora rhythms.

1. Los Muñequitos de MatanzasD’ Palo ‘Pa Rumba 

As far as I am concerned, there is no more important group in Cuban music history than Los Muñequitos de Matanzas. All Afro-Cuban music (both the popular dance forms, and Latin-Jazz) has its roots in “la rumba,” and Los Muñequitos have unquestionably been the leading representatives of that genre for well over 50 years. On this particular recording, the arrangements and singing are truly spectacular, and the percussion is, as always, truly state of the art!

2. Chucho ValdésLive at the Village Vanguard

Chucho was, of course,the director of one of the great bands in Latin music history – Irakere.  Because there were so many great soloists in the history of that band (Paquito D’ Rivera, Arturo Sandoval, Anga, Maraca, to name but a few) it might be easy to overlook his genius as a piano player. But on this recording released in 2000, his brilliance as a soloist shines from the very beginning and you can hear why Jesus Alfonso (the now deceased quinto player of Los Muñequitos de Matanzas) once said to me, “He’s the only piano player I’ve ever heard who actually runs out of piano.”  The performances here by Raul Piñeda and Roberto Vizcaino are simply unparalleled, and this album defines the contemporary Latin Jazz genre for me.

3. João GilbertoJoão Gilberto

After almost 40 years, this remains the most beautiful record I own. Every time I listen to the counterpoint of João’s voice with his guitar accompaniment on “Águas de Março,” I am transfixed by both its beauty and stunning rhythmic complexity.  He just rivets one’s attention, and I remain awestruck by his brilliance.

4. Los Van VanAy Dios – Ampárame!

I simply can’t go out of the house without several albums of the greatest dance band in Cuban music history. It’s almost impossible to choose the “best” amongst their prolific offerings, but I’ve chosen this disc because even though it was recorded after the Maestro Jose Luis Quintana (aka “Changuito”) left the band, the entire record grooves like crazy. Like all Van Van songs, the coros on this record are so well constructed, the horn “monas” swing so hard, and Mayito Rivera and “Robertón” bring so much soul to their vocal work. A true tour de force!

5. João BoscoObrigado Gente

João Bosco is my favorite Brazilian composer. Along with his lyricist Aldir Blanc, he has consistently written truly remarkable songs, and this live album (and its awesome companion DVD) features an abundance of these great tunes. In addition to the fact that João has a unique ability to craft a song, his band is always smoking hot, and their swing quite simply defines small group samba for me.

6. Conjunto LibreRitmo, Estilo, Sonido

This album represents New York Latin dance music at its finest. What made Conjunto Libre so great for me was the improvisation sensibilities that were interwoven into their music. This was a straight-ahead dance band, yet somehow it could accommodate any jazz performer or soloist. With all respect to the giants of the Latin dance music (Tito Puente, Eddie Palmieri, Ray Barretto, et cetera), what Manny Oquendo and Andy González brought to the table with their band (and this album, in particular) had a swing that was unlike any other. All the solos on this project are smoking, especially the “conversations” between Manny on timbales and Dave Valentin on flute, and you can literally drive a truck through the grooves that Manny, Andy, and the great Jerry Gonzalez (Andy’s brother, and bandleader of the Fort Apache Band) lay down.

7. Pedrito MartinezThe Pedrito Martinez Group

Pedrito Martinez is my favorite musician on the planet. He is a brilliant percussionist, a vocalist with amazing range and phrasing, and a bandleader of extraordinary presence. This quartet is the best band I know of today – they are a quartet, and yet they sound like 12 people playing. I can’t believe how unified their sound is, and how uniquely they arrange and play together.

8. Yosvany TerryYe-de-gbe

I consider Yosvany to be the best of the young lions of the Latin Jazz genre. He has it all – chops, concept, phrasing, and a knowledge of both harmony and rhythm that puts him at the forefront of the new generation of Cuban musicians/composers here in the U.S.  This is a seminal recording for me because it is rooted in the Arará traditions from Cuba, which are some of the most beautiful and complex musical forms found anywhere in the African Diaspora. Yosvany’s combination of Afro-Cuban roots with modern jazz makes a very profound statement, and requires many listenings to digest. I should add that any project that features Sandy Perez, Román Diaz, and Pedrito Martinez on percussion automatically goes to the top of my play list!

9. Beth CarvalhoBeth Carvalho Canta Cartola

A CD of my favorite Carioca vocalist performing the songs of the legendary samba composer Cartola – what more could one ask for?!  For my money, nobody sings/swings a samba like Beth, and when she puts her soul into the maestro’s songs, there really is nothing more to say. She has released a number of great albums throughout her brilliant career, but this remains my favorite. 

10. Pupy y Los Que Son SonQue cosas tiene la vida

I don’t know that many of us were aware of how important Pupy was to Los Van Van (and hence to Cuban music in general) until he left the group after 30 years to form Los Que Son Son. He was of course the author of many of Los Van Van’s greatest hits, but when he put out this CD, it became clear what a genius he was in his own right. There isn’t a single sophisticated, complex break on this CD. But the swing of this record defines timba for me, and his ability to get the locomotive absolutely motoring down the track requires a truly amazing sophistication within the rhythm section. This is driving music at its best (double-entendre intended!), and is my first choice for getting from point A to point B!

Michael Spiro’s latest album, Ritmos Unidos (Patois Records), was released on August 19th, 2014. www.michaelspiro.com

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