Street Date: November 18, 2022
Label: Jojo Records
Panama-born and New York-based Santi Debriano steers away from simplicity. The bassist-composer, who emigrated to the United States from Panama at the age of four and later obtained an ethnomusicology graduate degree from Wesleyan University, has made a point to transpose Afro-Caribbean tradition onto his compositional work. His latest mark, Ashanti, finds West African language and ritual at its core. Alongside his Arkestra Bembé, Debriano harnessed the power of the Yoruba tribe’s bembé — a celebration involving food, drink, music and dance — and fabricated his own, pandemic-inspired jam session tradition of a similar intimacy. Countless weeks of bembés yielded Ashanti, the stalwart bassist’s eighth release as a leader.
Back during the pandemic lockdown, Debriano made a sanctuary for New York area jazz musicians deficient in a communal practice space. In the basement of his Staten Island home, he would organize weekly bembés, creating a musical lifeline, a means of survival, for artists until it was safe to venture into the studio again. “At first, the weekly bembés were loose and unstructured,” Debriano shares. “But as they grew in size, it enticed me to start expanding on my arrangements and experimenting with them.”
These sessions afforded the bandleader the opportunity to fashion compositions for a larger cast while witnessing fantastic interactions between instrumentalists. As weeks went by, Debriano’s compositional imagination stretched in tandem with what would become his Arkestra Bembé. This stellar cast finds Debriano as anchor on bass with Robby Ameen on drums, TK Blue on alto saxophone, Andrea Brachfeld on flute, Tommy Morimoto on tenor saxophone, Ray Scro on baritone saxophone, Emile Turner on trumpet, Adrian Alvárado on guitar and Mamiko Watanabe on piano.
Wrought by challenging chord developments and sudden variations in tempo, a typical Debriano composition is nuanced and even tricky. Through the routine workshop participation in these bembés, band members found an intimate opportunity to indulge in Debriano’s remarkable writings.
The record opens romantically with “Angel Heart”, a dedication to Debriano’s wife. Pulsing with romance, the composition is also a masterclass in intuitive string interplay, where the Brazilian-born Adrian Alvarádo is heard on his Flamenco guitar adagios while Debriano introduces African and Caribbean phrasing on bass. “At the core of ‘Angel Heart’ is a melody that’s been in my head for maybe two or three years. I’d rewritten and rewritten it. I realize now that what it was waiting for was a guitarist like Adrian,” Debriano shares.
The title track “Ashanti” is the most spiritually African in its intentions of all tunes on the record, Coincidentally, this melody rolled off of Debriano’s subconsciousness, “almost completely intact” as he describes, sourcing its name from a conversation he had with man in the West African nation, Togo, who told Debriano that he was named after the Ashanti tribe. Steeped in the ancestry of its namesake “Ashanti” kicks off with the rumbles of Robby Ameen and includes an extended bass solo from the bandleader.
It’s no surprise that a record assembled under the premise of survival would toy with so much imagination. The back to back tracks “Imaginary Guinea” and “Imagined Nation” are mystical and exploratory by nature, the former offering a trance-like, eerie prayer in 6/8 measure; its melody extracted from a Haitian Voodoo folklore belief that when a Haitian dies, his soul follows a river across the Atlantic Ocean to Guinea, where it will reside permanently. Ray Scro distinguishes himself on “Imaginary Guinea” with a resonant, surging solo on bari sax.
Images of water continue to flow across the record; the shapeshifting arrangement of the late, great marimba player Bobby Hutcherson’s “Till Then,” came to fruition when Debriano asked pianist Mamiko Watanabe to create a descendent opening, “like water tumbling down a waterfall.” The results are a testament of her artistry. In succession, “Spunky” turns to a straight-ahead mashup of funk and swing with shining contributions from the horn section, including a taste of New Orleans from the Louisiana-born trumpeter Emile Turner.
“Arkestra Bembé Boogaloo” introduces an upbeat, pulsating Latin rhythm held together by Ameen on drums overdubbed on the Cuban guiro, laying down the foundation for an infectious Afro-Caribbean composition. “Basilar” maintains this Latin American spirit, with soaring solos from Tommy Morimoto on tenor sax and the inimitable Andrea Brachfeld on flute before a parade of rhythm culminates at the hands of Ameen on drums.
A virtuosic collaboration between Debriano and saxophonist Ray Scro yields “Mr. Monk and Mr. Mingus”. Written by Scro and arranged by Debriano, the pair honor both jazz giants’ use of metric modulation and affinities for the flatted fifth. Both musicians had a heightened philosophical sense of what Mingus meant when he famously said “music has to have the beauty and the ugliness.” In his own interpretation of the phrase, Debriano shares: “I think what he meant by that was to combine harmony and disharmony in a pleasing way, but with some element of chaos also.”
The record closes with a two and a half minute arrangement of Charles Mingus’, “Portrait”, which was written for his wife, Sue, who recently passed. Debriano pays tribute to both on this reflective solo. At its core, Ashanti is the product of commitment, a banner of sympathy and understanding between musicians born from a crossroads. With a shared fixation on this music, this practice of endurance became sacred for the members of Arkestra Bembé, who effortlessly merge their cultural and creative backgrounds onto a plain of spiritual comprehension. “Because of the shared physical space as we worked out the details of this over an extended period, I think we’ve been able to achieve something special that took us all into a deeper place.”
Flash of the Spirit
Street Date: January 22, 2021
Label: Truth Revolution Records
The Truth Revolution Recording Collective is proud to announce the release of Flash of the Spirit, a new album from bassist, guitarist, and composer Santi Debriano. Flash of the Spirit will be available on January 22, 2021 in CD and digital format via Truth Revolution Records.
Much like his native Panama, which straddles the continental divide and facilitates the union of Pacific and Atlantic, Santi Debriano has become comfortable occupying several worlds at once. But, like the Panama Canal, it’s taken some work—extracurricular work, in Debriano’s case. As an ethnomusicology graduate student at Wesleyan University Debriano read Robert Farris Thompson’s Flash of the Spirit. For Debriano, a Black Panamanian American who’d grown up in New York City after his family emigrated from Panama when he was four, Thompson’s book proved revelatory, asking questions like: To what extent have African traditions and customs been retained by contemporary Black cultures throughout the Americas? “That book describes my ancestral struggle to stay present in the many worlds I live in,” says Debriano, “but also to never forget where I came from.”
It’s a tight rope that Debriano walks, but on his version of Flash of the Spirit, the always intellectually curious bandleader strikes the balance of a Wallenda in his prime. And he’s got plenty of help; his rhythm section’s rounded out by drummer Tommy Campbell, whom Debriano’s known since both were college students in Boston, playing in Stan Strickland’s band, Sundance, and pianist Bill O’Connell, who, like Debriano, performs with consummate fluency regardless of whether the gig’s led by Sonny Rollins or Mongo Santamaria. A small but powerful woodwind section includes alto saxophonist Justin Robinson and flutist Andrea Brachfeld. And complimenting the core quintet are Francisco Mela, a Cuban-born, raised and educated drummer known for collaborations with saxophonist Joe Lovano and pianist Chucho Valdés, Brazilian percussionist Valtinho Anastacio, a veteran of the genre-defying, Debriano-led ensemble Circlechant, and Tim Porter, an indispensable scholar and practitioner of the contemporary jazz mandolin.
There’s a lot here. It’s easy to get distracted—and understandable, because everything that does glitter here is, indeed, gold, from a listening standpoint. Between the reimagined— and sometimes totally reinvented— takes on tunes from Kenny Barron, Kenny Dorham, and Ornette Coleman, as well Debriano’s solo bass take on a standard popularized by Billie Holiday, the temptation might be to overlook Flash of the Spirit’s original compositions; doing so would be a mistake.
It’s a danger easily avoided by starting at the beginning, where Debriano’s “Awesome Blues,” a percussive hip-shaker in seven, leads things off. Driven hard by Debriano’s indefatigable bottom and bookended by beautiful and precise unison playing on the tune’s theme by Robinson and Brachfeld—which calls for and, in turn, receives response from Debriano’s bass—it’s a blues that lives up to its lofty billing.
In the two-hole is another Debriano original, “Funky New Dorp.” A smart groover with a deliciously Eastern-flavored head, this one again features beautifully controlled, precise and pitch-perfect unison playing by Robinson and Brachfeld and is a shout-out to Debriano’s Staten Island community, a tribute to how that neighborhood came together and supported one another during Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Brachfeld, a flutist mentored by giants like Jimmy Heath, Yusef Lateef and Eddie Daniels, lays down an expansive solo of a narrative quality; plot points and story arcs are exposed and resolved in under two minutes.
Debriano’s adventure in solo bass is next. On “For Heaven’s Sake,” he’s completely naked out there, so to speak, and with just his bass for cover channels, in turn, Lady Day and, on a sly little quote of “Round Midnight,” Monk.
For the next tune, Debriano increases the size of the band by 100%; O’Connell joins and together they combine for a duo’s take on O’Connell’s “Beneath the Surface.” As the song’s title suggests, there is a story to be told here, and Debriano’s bowed playing lends both pathos and pulpy suspense to the orchestration. Indeed, there’s a cinematic quality here, suggestive of a reckoning with something long buried and suddenly revealed.
The mood then quickly lightens “Toujours Petits,” a joyous, soul-nourishing piece written by Debriano for his three children that will fire up your neurological nostalgia centers and remind you of your capacity for deep, all-consuming love. And if you listen closely, you might make out Debriano’s slight doff of the cap to Jobim’s “Waters of March.”
The final two Debriano compositions are “Ripty Boom” and “Natural Causes.” The former is a blues in six with a bit of a hard-boiled, noirish feel. Very cool. Brachfeld, once more, offers a soaring solo before ceding her time to Robinson, whose show of athleticism impressively manages to marvel without ever straying outside the tune’s melodic frame. The latter sees drummer Tommy Campbell deftly navigating subtle time changes, while Robinson lays down another solo, where, at times, his playing takes on distinct tenor-like qualities. Anastacio’s presence on berimbau and congas, as on “Toujours Petits,” adds seasoning in just the right measure, while gorgeous unison playing—this time between Brachfeld and Debriano, while Robinson plays a harmony line—continues to be a hallmark of this recording.
Robinson merges back into the melody line, joining O’Connell, Debriano, and Brachfeld in stating the theme of Ornette Coleman’s “Humpty Dumpty,” a composition Debriano considers Coleman’s “most tuneful.” Between collective statements of the theme is where the album’s free jazz moment occurs, mirroring the type of disorientation the song’s titular character must have felt while experiencing his great fall.
Flash of the Spirit closes with tunes composed by two Kennys: Dorham and Barron. Dorham’s “La Mesha,” originally a ballad written for Joe Henderson’s Page One (1963), is the album’s one true hard-bop ballad. And in the tradition of tunes like Coltrane’s “Naima” and Shorter’s “Infant Eyes,” Robinson, though in just a supporting role, delivers with facility and emotional depth. Meanwhile, Debriano overdubs on electric guitar here with playing that’s clean and soulful.
As the pièce de résistance, Brachfeld and Debriano introduce and reprise, in unison, the iconic theme of the album’s closer in a way you almost certainly haven’t heard before: It’s a piano-less version of piano legend Kenny Barron’s “Voyage,” with the drums kicking out an Afro-Cuban songo rhythm.
This tune, this record, is exactly how a musician like Debriano reconciles the dilemma of feeling tied to several worlds and artistic traditions at once. Because it shows everyone in all of those communities—from Brooklyn to Staten Island to the Black communities of Panama—Debriano’s essence; it is the flash of his spirit.
THE ABSOLUTE SOUND
"Ashanti is an enjoyable listen for fans of larger ensembles." Read the full review in the March 2023 print issue.
MAKING A SCENE
"The confluence of all these cultural and musical influences may be difficult to digest in just one sitting, making this a strong candidate for repeat listens. Debriano has earned it." Read the review here.
ALL THAT'S JAZZ
"In our conversation with Santi - as well as with the selected sample tracks - we give you an inside look at how love, ingenuity, and determination to continue to create during the pandemic produced a remarkable album that may not have otherwise happened." Listen to the full episode and interview here.
THE ABSOLUTE SOUND
"When blended together, the nonet’s combination of flute, acoustic guitar, three saxophones, trumpet, piano, double bass, and drums creates a rich, alluring sound that will make your speakers purr. " Read the full review here.
for Flash of the Spirit
"...the bassist’s latest release, from first note to last, is marked by an appealing fluidity that carries the listener away." The Best Jazz on Bandcamp: January 2021. Check out this article here.
ALL ABOUT JAZZ
"Remarkably, he achieves a musical oneness, music that sounds natural to his personal musical and cultural insights. It is as if all the sonic tributaries his life has revealed to him, have finally joined to flow into the infinite sea of sound." Review here.
DEE DEE MCNEIL
"This album is a celebration of upright bass and guitar in a unique and gratifying way, featuring the very talented Santi Debriano, who kindly shares a flash of his own spirit with us in a most unique way." Check this review here.
"Santi Debriano’s latest release, Flash of the Spirit is an emotionally charged burst of expression that I hope will set the example for the world to follow in 2021." Read the full review here.
D. OSCAR GROOMES
"Bassist Santi Debriano reigns prominent throughout the set on melodies, as a spirited anchor and a prominent composer." Read the full review in the Summer 2021 O's Place Newsletter.