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Latin Jazz Album 'El Duelo' Features Lively Solos And Moments Of Surprising Beauty

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. For 30 years, trumpet and flugelhorn player Diego Urcola has toured and recorded with the Cuban-born saxophonist Paquito D'Rivera. For his own new album, Urcola hired D'Rivera as a featured sideman to put him in a fresh setting, a quartet of two horns and two rhythms. Our jazz critic Kevin Whitehead has a review.

(SOUNDBITE OF DIEGO URCOLA QUARTET FEATURING PAQUITO D'RIVERA'S "THE NATURAL")

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Paquito D'Rivera on alto saxophone from Diego Urcola's quartet album "El Duelo."

In a typical Latin jazz band, piano is the spine where harmony and rhythm connect. Take piano out, the texture opens up, even if bass and drums keep vamping away. It's not like they all need piano to stay on a song's grid. Paquito's agreeably busy playing is steeped in hyperactive bebop. He fills in rhythm and harmony on his own. The open texture leaves the horns exposed, his alto and clarinet and Urcola's piercing or veiled-sounding trumpet or flugelhorn.

(SOUNDBITE OF DIEGO URCOLA QUARTET FEATURING PAQUITO D'RIVERA'S "TANGO AZUL")

WHITEHEAD: For a rhythm duo, Diego Urcola invited Paquito's drummer Eric Doob and a new bass player the leader had been checking out, Hamish Smith from New Zealand. The bassist and drummer make a lively pair, slipping into and out of infectious grooves and minding those song forms. They might also tailor the rhythm for each soloist. On Dizzy Gillespie's "Con Alma," bass and drums play broken time behind jittery Paquito D'Rivera. Then they lay down a more relaxed swing groove for Urcola.

(SOUNDBITE OF DIEGO URCOLA'S "CON ALMA")

WHITEHEAD: With this quartet, Diego Urcola pushes Paquito D'Rivera a little outside his comfort zone. They play a typically catchy tune by Ornette Coleman, whose pianoless quartet used to wander off a song's grid - a bit too unruly for the beboppers. This performance of Ornette's "Una Muy Bonita" is a rich text. The brisk melody is tight. On the bridge, the horns get that frightened birds quality Ornette and Don Cherry got in 1959. Saxophonist Paquito then blurts out some obvious wrong notes the way boppers would mock Ornette's avant-garde moves way back when. But then the tune's charms win Paquito over.

(SOUNDBITE OF DIEGO URCOLA'S "UNA MUY BONITA")

WHITEHEAD: From there, Paquito D'Rivera gets a little jokey again, reclaiming some distance from the material. Diego Urcola's album "El Duelo" isn't much of a duel despite its title. It has its romantic side, like the soloists. Urcola is from Argentina, and there are a few tangos. But he also admires the unhurried trumpet and flugelhorn rhapsodist Kenny Wheeler. The quartet play one of his tunes, but this one's by Urcola - "Leyenda," legend.

(SOUNDBITE OF DIEGO URCOLA'S "LEYENDA")

WHITEHEAD: The album "El Duelo" is a bit overstuffed at 77 minutes, with 15 selections where 10 or 12 might do. They include some Diego Urcola originals and themes by Wayne Shorter and Benny Golson. And they revived Jerry Gonzalez's festive take on Thelonious Monk's "Bye-ya." Along the way, there are many feisty solos over springy rhythm and moments of surprising beauty. Even if you're choosy, there is a lot to like here.

(SOUNDBITE OF DIEGO URCOLA'S "BYE-YA")

DAVIES: Kevin Whitehead is the author of the new book "Play The Way You Feel: The Essential Guide To Jazz Stories On Film." He reviewed the new album "El Duelo" by Diego Urcola, which also features Paquito D'Rivera.

(SOUNDBITE OF DIEGO URCOLA'S "BYE-YA")

DAVIES: On tomorrow's show, our guest is writer Sigrid Nunez. Her new novel is about the fear that climate change, a pandemic and far-right regimes will spell the end of civilization and the death of the planet. The novel is also about facing mortality as an individual and the relationship between a writer dying of cancer and the friend she asks to stay with her. I hope you can join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF DIEGO URCOLA'S "LIBERTANGO")

DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF DIEGO URCOLA'S "LIBERTANGO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.