Review Summary: Energetic, entertaining, and still very imperfect, Afro shows off Dizzy's infatuation with Afro-Cuban music.
I own one jazz shirt. It’s a Dizzy Gillespie shirt and a quite simple one. It shows a huge, blown up picture of Dizzy playing trumpet with his signature mile-wide cheeks. At school, I’ll often get reactions like “You know you have a black guy playing a trumpet on your shirt, right?” or “Why does it say Dizzy? Is he dizzy from making his cheeks like that?” I blow off the ignorance; I like the shirt. Dizzy Gillespie is an underappreciated jazz artist that really needs to be seen as more than just Charlie Parker’s trumpet accomplice. The two of them together pioneered bebop but Charlie gets much more credit. That might be because Dizzy immersed himself in other genres. He headed the Afro-Cuban movement, a small section of Latin jazz that hosts classics such as A Night in Tunisia
. This live album, drawing from two diverse performances, showcases Dizzy’s Afro-Cuban infatuation and brilliance.
Afro takes live performances from Dizzy and his big band as well as an obscure combo featuring Dizzy and a flute player named Alejandro Hernandez. The album starts with the big band performance, definitely the worse of the two sections. Dizzy’s big band only existed for a few years due to its terrible reputation and quality. Although possessing a great lineup of individual players, no one knew how to balance a band, everyone wailed to their highest point. And still, Dizzy played louder than all of them. The moments that call for a screaming lead trumpet and a huge sound underneath sound fantastic, but other than that, the performance comes across as sloppy, unrefined, and somewhat amateur. Hard to believe with musicians like Quincy Jones in the wings. The rhythm section makes the performance nearly fall apart a few times, such as in Manteca Theme
. The drummer fails to establish a steady tempo until about halfway through the song, relying on the auxiliary congas to lay down the Latin groove. Once the groove gets going, the Latin feel is unmistakable. It continues into Contraste
, equally groovy and probably the best track on the big band section, although Dizzy easily overshadows everything else playing. Eventually, it doesn’t matter since he takes a solo about halfway through the song. The groove and the great saxophone ambiance make Contraste
fantastic and a true representation of the talent Dizzy’s big band possesses. These moments of brilliance, which also occur in the biggest sections of Rhumba-Finale, make the big band section worth listening to. If only the entire performance could reach that caliber.
The second half of the album, the final three tracks, finds Dizzy where he belongs, in a small and intimate jazz combo. Featuring a bass, piano, a few Latin percussionists, flute, and none other than Dizzy himself, the combo gives a quick summary of some Afro-Cuban classics. Opening with none other than A Night in Tunisia
, arguably Dizzy’s most famous work, the combo immediately lays down one of the strongest Latin grooves ever heard on a recording. Instead of making the constant switch between swing and Latin, Dizzy takes the arrangement into a new direction, an entirely Latin song. He proves he knows the song’s ins and outs like no one else. His solo shows his incredible range and finger speed, screaming up and down all ranges of the trumpet. After a lighter and slower Con Alma
, the band takes on the classic Caravan
, which Duke Ellington brought to prominence in his heyday. Dizzy utilizes a mute as the piano and flute play the main theme of the song. Once again, the percussion groove shines, given a chance to shine in a nearly 2 minute feature. Dizzy throws down an even faster solo than in A Night in Tunisia
without his mute, pushing the speed of his trumpet to its limits. Still, he manages to throw in extremely melodic moments, playing off of the main melody.
Despite some sloppiness and imperfections in Dizzy’s big band performance, Afro shows the pure energy and intensity of Afro-Cuban music. Every song possesses fantastic grooves, a relentless energy, and most of all Dizzy’s amazing trumpeting. His original compositions still stand out today as landmarks in music, being the premiere standards in Latin jazz. Gillespie gave a lot to the jazz world and only leaves a few of his own recordings behind, spending most of his recording time at the side of Charlie Parker. Still, his energetic style and compositions are timeless. Afro is a great listen and jazz fans should definitely consider taking a listen.
A Night in Tunisia