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3 New Jazz Albums by California Artists: Brian Andres, David James, Kneedelus

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David James's GPS with Dina Maccabee, James, Jan Jackson, Lisa Mezzacappa, Beth Custer and Alan Williams. (left to right)  (Photo by Federico Cusigch)

California continues to serve as a musical laboratory for catalytic collaborations. Three recent releases bring musicians together in very different ways while all arriving at fascinating destinations.

Drummer Brian Andres and the Afro-Cuban Jazz Cartel is a talent-laden ensemble that has steadily expanded its rhythmic purview over the past decade.

With its third album, "This Could Be That," the band delivers a consistently smart and entertaining program of Latin jazz and salsa. The Cartel’s core octet features some of the strongest players on the Bay Area scene, including a bevy of noted bandleaders (like trombonist Jamie Dubberly, and the co-leaders, Grammy Award-winning Pacific Mambo Orchestra, pianist Christian Tumalan and trumpeter Steffen Kuehn).

Just about every track features a noted guest artist, including Cuban-American vocalist Venissa Santi, bata master Michael Spiro, Peruvian percussion star Alex Acuña and percussion maestro John Santos. But what I love most about this band is the way it’s become a community affair in the Bay Area’s bustling Latin jazz scene.


Players who don’t perform regularly with the band are eager to contribute arrangements, like bassist Saul Sierra’s tasty version of late Cuban percussion legend Daniel Ponce’s “Bacalaitos,” a chart that celebrates the cultural kinship between Cuba and Puerto Rico (with an assist from Fania All-Stars percussion great Louie Romero). For blazing Latin jazz, it’s hard to beat Tumalan’s concise version of Chick Corea’s fusion flag-waver “Got a Match?”


If Andres and the Afro-Cuban Jazz Cartel is busy lighting fires, guitarist David James's GPS demonstrate the power of cool on "Billionaire Blues." James is a veteran sideman who has done memorable work in an array of contexts, including Michael Franti and Spearhead, Sila and the Afrofunk Experience, and the Beth Custer Ensemble (he's still performing with the latter two ).

After three decades of elevating other bandleaders’ projects, he’s put out his first album. And it’s a stunner.

James is known as a groove master, and there are some fierce ones on "Billionaire Blues," but he’s more interested in creating long sinuous melodies and transparent textures than displaying his rhythmic chops. The album explores an array of styles, from the lithe reggae of “Rubber Foot” and the sinewy bop of “Obama Hop” to the playfully cartoonish bounce of “Wag the Puppy” and the elegant Afrobeat of “Black Ops.”

What makes the album cohere so beautifully is James’ uncluttered orchestrations. He makes brilliant use of his cast, creating spacious arrangements that leave plenty of space for his enviable cast of violist Dina Maccabee, bassist Lisa Mezzacappa, clarinetist Beth Custer, trombonist Alan Williams and drummer Jan Jackson (half of GPS — James, Jackson and Custer — can also be found in the Beth Custer Ensemble, as can entirely different versions of “Wag the Puppy” and “Black Ops” on her excellent new album "For the Grace of Any Man").

A striking achievement by a player who’s been in the background far too long, "Billionaire Blues" is my favorite album of the year so far.


Where James’ album seemed to come out of nowhere, the collaboration between the great avant funk jazz combo Kneebody and Los Angeles producer and beat master Daedalus (aka Alfred Darlington) comes with a great deal of history. A digital release on Brainfeeder, the creatively charged L.A. label responsible for saxophonist Kamasi Washington’s 2015 breakout "The Epic," "Kneedelus" is the latest and most extensive encounter between artists with ties dating back to high school (where Kneebody saxophonist Ben Wendel and Darlington first met).

Some of the music has a celestial Miles Davis "In A Silent Way" vibe, and other times it brings to mind the space funk of Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi band. But there’s nothing retro about "Kneedelus."

I love the way the push and pull of sound manipulation keeps me off balance. Kneebody has honed an expansive sonic palette wedded to a menagerie of circuitous grooves unlike any other band, and with Daedalus subtly manipulating the proceedings it’s a truly seamless merging of sensibilities.

I see a "Daedebody" project in the future, but in the meantime, Kneedelus is performing around California, including Feb. 26 in San Diego, March 3 in Santa Cruz and March 4 in San Jose.

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