This is as close to Latin purist Mongo as we have heard in recent years, an eight-piece salsa band – including several members of the 1997 Tito Puente ensemble, like trumpeter Ray Vega, altoist Bobby Porcelli and tenorman Mitch Frohman – playing a brace of Mongo classics and Latin jazz pieces live before a hushed crowd in Seattle's Jazz Alley. There are no pop covers, one electric instrument (a bass), lots of extended jazz solos (Porcelli and Frohman really burn on the pioneering Afro-Cuban classic "Manteca"), and an unusual (for Mongo) emphasis on the timbales on many tracks, which shoves the rhythms closer to the salsified Puente manner. However, tracks like "Juan Jose," "Home" and "Bonita" do have the smooth Mongo cha-cha and guajira grooves, and elsewhere, Mongo lifts himself out of the background often enough to deliver some stirring polyrhythmic conga salvos.
The reissue of late Mongo Santamaria's 1976 album Sofrito – he died in February 2003 – by Vaya brings many questions to the fore. While the record was greeted by somewhat lukewarm press reviews at the time of its release given its preoccupation with groove-jazz-oriented sonics and production, and was considered a minor work by many. But on compact disc and with the new look at the era's recordings by virtually everyone, from Willie Bobo, Willie Colón, Ray Barretto, and other jazzmen of the time, such as Deodato, Lonnie Liston Smith, and Herbie Hancock, Sofrito is, perhaps, a timeless Latin soul-jazz classic.
A brilliant recording by Cuban percussionist Mongo Santamaria, Afro Roots (Prestige, 1989) collects the Latin jazz hero’s first two albums released on the Fantasy label, 1958’s Yambu and 1959’s Mongo. The music is some of the best the genre has ever produced and shows just how good Santamaria was before making the unfortunate leap to Latin fusion in the late ‘60s. The supporting musicians on these sessions are also impeccable, numbering among them Cal Tjader, Francisco Aguabella, Willie Bobo, Armando Peraza, Emil Richards, and Vince Guaraldi. With most of its songs falling within the four-minute mark and the LP featuring a beautiful black woman on its cover (a style very much of its time), Afro Roots is designed for a popular audience with the aim of making this music enjoyable and accessible.
Mongo returns – to the Fantasy label group, not the scene, from which he had never been missing in action. Yet in another sense, it is a return to the basic Mongo Santamaria Afro-Cuban-rooted sound and concept – with a few contemporary elements – that the ageless leader had been employing ever since he stopped trying to chase after hits. Marty Sheller continues to turn out the charts; in addition to three of his own tunes, he gratefully revives two unusual overlooked '70s gems, Stevie Wonder's "You've Got It Bad, Girl" and Marvin Gaye's "When Did You Stop Loving Me, When Did I Stop Loving You" in his old boogaloo manner.