by Ken Avis
Remember the Smithsonian Jazz Café? If so, you probably remember the Afro Bop Alliance; until the venue’s doors closed in 2008, the D.C.-area septet was more or less the house band for its Latin jazz nights. Performing both alone and alongside visiting stars like Poncho Sanchez and Arturo O’Farrill, the Afro-Cuban jazz group – which is led by drummer Joe McCarthy – set those evenings alight. The sterile atmosphere that you might have anticipated from the Natural History Museum’s Atrium Café became vibrant with the lush and innovative arrangements of the Afro Bop Alliance, blending the energy of their Latin polyrhythms with bebop’s harmonic complexity.
The alliance – which performs this Thursday at Twins Jazz – found national attention when it teamed up in 2008 with the vibraphonist Dave Samuels and his renowned Caribbean Jazz Project. The album they made together earned the Latin Grammy for Latin Jazz Album of the Year, and garnered a nomination for a Grammy. The Afro Bop Alliance certainly hasn’t over-played the local scene in the intervening years. So, this week’s appearance is something to relish for both fans and newcomers to the band.
“Keeping a big band on the road when its members are all in-demand musicians with multiple projects isn’t easy,” McCarthy explained. The band has been far from idle, though. Their 2011 album, Una Más, earned critical acclaim and won the Washington Area Music Association Award for Best Big Band/Swing recording. The album was described by the Latin Jazz Network as a “molten mix of bronzed horns and beautifully clouded woodwinds with elementally raw drums and percussion … creating a sensuous, almost bordering on lustful quality to the music.”
Joining McCarthy in the band are Luís Hernandez and Vince Norman on saxophones, Tim Stanley on trumpet, Harry Appelman on piano, Tom Baldwin on bass and Victor Provost on steel pan. The improvisational and arranging talent in this lineup is highly respected.
Provost is the newest addition to the combo. McCarthy enthused: “I’m really excited about Victor, who is one of the finest players and improvisers you’re going to hear on steel pan. He’s really making an impact, and brings a new vibe to the sound of the band.” Provost’s debut album, which earned No. 3 on CapitalBop’s best of 2011 list, helped introduce him as an exciting modern master of the signature Caribbean instrument – which has previously been rarely seen in jazz contexts.
The Twins show will feature recent compositions by Afro Bop Alliance band members. The band is working out new material onstage before making its next recording. Of course, there’ll also be plenty of favorites from the previous CD releases. Whatever the January weather has to offer, expect a musical mojito from Afro Bop.
The Afro Bop Alliance performs at Twins Jazz, at 8 and 10 p.m. on Thursday. More information is available here. Admission costs $10, and there is a $10 food and drink minimum. You can be purchase tickets in advance here.