Latin jazz collective Ritmocano is an all-star lineup of the Iowa jazz community, headed by percussionist and one of my former UI instructors, James Dreier. On Familia, Ritmocano’s most recent album, he demonstrates his abilities playing multiple percussive instruments, from the congas often found in Afro-Cuban music, to the Batá drums of West Africa.
Because the project is headed by an accomplished drummer, one might expect Familia to be rhythmically overwrought and filled with complex twists that could easily leave the average listener flummoxed. However, Dreier goes beyond mere percussive expertise in this project, bringing sensitivity and thoughtfulness to each arrangement.
Familia kicks off with a fiery Latin fusion tune in 7/4 time (read: difficult) called “Siete,” which introduces the listener to the main themes of the album: brassy melodies, tight hits sections and a plethora of percussion (of the 13 musicians featured on Familia, six are percussionists).
The tune “Debora” features Rich Medd, Gabe’s father, on a laid-back, trombone-driven bossa nova reminiscent of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s composition, “Look to the Sky.” The album stalls somewhat by placing the down-tempo cha-cha-chá “Song For My Father” in immediate succession, and this is one of the few critical points to be made about the album.
Continuing with the up-tempo samba “Namorada,” pianist Steve Shanley channels Chick Corea’s Rhodes playing from his innovative Return to Forever album. Meanwhile, Dreier’s son Derek flexes bombastic chops and grooves on the drumset, capturing the flare of Corea’s drummer, Airto Moreira. “Afro Cuban Fantasy” contains a Batá drumming passage straight out of the folkloric tradition of West Africa; a singer beseeching the trickster god Elegua or the moon goddess Yemaya would not be out of place on this track. The final jewel of this album is the ballad-like “Of Grace,” written by Dreier for his mother. Saxophonist and flutist Ryan Smith hits us right in the serotonin receptors with a velvety soprano solo, while Dreier’s daughter Virginia gently serenades us on violin.
Familia has something for every listener of Latin-jazz music, including fusion, bossa nova, cha-cha-chá, samba, West African folk music and guaguanco, to name a few, and the familial collaborations are definite highlights.
This article was originally published in Little Village issue 171