By Jim Hynes, Making A Scene
The Grammy-winning Pacific Mambo Orchestra (PMO) was founded in 2010 by Mexican-born pianist Christian Tumalan and German-born trumpeter Steffen Kuehn. The 20-piece ensemble is the only active Latin Big band on the US West Coast, comprised of some of the Bay Area’s top talent. In addition, this aggregation has collaborated with some of music’s biggest names including Carlos Santana, Poncho Sanchez, Pete Escovedo, Herbie Hancock and Prince. Now in their tenth year, as the title suggests, this is their third recording, leveraging their independently produced crowd-funded self-titled debut that earned them a Grammy for Best Tropical Latin Album in 2013. They followed with Live from Stern Grove San Francisco in 2017 which brings us to this special recording.
As with previous efforts, the band blends an array of Latin styles including Timba, Cha Cha, Mambo and Bolero with classical and pop sounds to define their singular approach. As such, they deliver danceable melodies, intelligent arrangements, stellar musicianship, and palpable energy across the nine tracks that feature special guests. They are Grammy-winning percussionist Dafnis Prieto ( a bandleader himself), Grammy-winning trumpeter Jon Faddis who has played on hundreds of recordings stretching back to early Blood, Sweat, and Tears, among others; renowned vocalist Herman Olivera and acclaimed guitarist Alex Britti.
The album begins in true Latin style but eventually includes two Dizzy Gillespie tunes, two classical adaptations, and a cover of Chaka Khan’s hit “Through the Fire.” Said another way, it has four Mambo/Salsa songs, one Bolero and four instrumentals “Mr. B’s Mambo” is a direct nod to “The Big 3”: Machito, Tito Puente and Tito Rodriguez. The lead vocalist in Braulio Berrera with a trombone solo from Mike Rinta. Danceable fare continues with “Mi Carnaval,” written and sung by Christelle Durandy. The first of the classical pieces is an amazing arrangement by co-leader Tumalan of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “2nd Piano Concerto: that pays homage to the piano concertos of the Romantic Period while infusing it with Danzon, Mambo, Guaguanco and even Tango rhythms.
“Le Temps d’un Horizon” is a beautiful bolero with lyrics in English and French with Durandy and Armando Cordoba on vocals as co-leader Kuehn solos on flugelhorn. The two Dizzy tunes are the classic “Night in Tunisia” spotlighting the impeccable drumming of Prieto and the stratospheric trumpet solo from Faddis; while “Birks Works” gives guitarist Britti his chance to stretch out. Guest Herman Olivera sings the Yoruba-inspired “Omi Ye Ye’” elegantly per usual. Chaka Khan’s horn-infuses tune features Cordoba on vocals with an alto solo from Doug Rowan while Kuehn takes a trumpet solo on the closer, an arrangement of Aaron Copeland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man.”
This is PMO’s second studio recording and one that should again put them in Grammy contention for their imaginative arrangements, variety of material, and inspired performances.