Michael Spiro/Wayne Wallace
La Orquesta Sinfonietta

On the latest installment of their acclaimed decades-long collaboration, percussionist Michael Spiro and trombonist Wayne Wallace reach beyond – and beneath – the roots of Latin Jazz. Yes, the nine pieces on Canto América (February 12, 2016, Patois Records) reflect their ongoing investigation of Afro-Caribbean music and its components. But Wallace and Spiro have a greater purpose in mind with this brilliantly realized large-ensemble album.

Canto América represents their revitalization of an enduring concept that has nonetheless fallen into neglect. This concept artfully balances African and Western influences by way of “a strong rhythmic base over which orchestral elements of European classical music are featured,” write Wallace and Spiro in their engrossing liner essay. But here, the rhythmic base combines folkloric rhythms with the modern grooves of Wayne Wallace’s well-established Latin Jazz Quintet. This fusion forms the foundation for Canto América, upon which the co-leaders use post-bop harmonies, emblematic compositions, and their own eclectic experiences to create music far removed from the usual Latin Jazz formats.

Canto América employs La Orquesta Sinfonietta, a pool of musicians from which the co-leaders can draw a chamber-orchestra complement of strings; a woodwind section variably containing flutes, oboe, clarinet, and saxes; brass choirs ranging from four to ten trombones and trumpets, French horns and tubas; a forest of percussion; vocals and even electronics. Canto América weaves a colorful tapestry of classic-to-modern rhythms – bolero to timba, Haitian petro to Cuban rumba, mambo to guiro – refreshed by traditional and newly composed compositions, along with surprising treatments of 20th-century standards. Thus the Great American Song “Stardust” is recast as a danzón, while the familiar John Coltrane vehicle “Afro-Blue” transforms into a Creole masterpiece.

“There are several types of Latin Jazz bands that work perfectly well, within established boundaries,” explains Wallace. “But I think that can become a cul-de-sac. It doesn’t leave enough room for creativity. For instance, there is a narrow view in Latin Jazz that strings only belong in tango. But I like being expansive. I like the idea of incorporating strings into other Latin idioms, instead of being bound [in my own quintet] to just congas and trombone and a guest artist.”

Adds Spiro: “These days, strings are usually found only in Latin dance bands, but not so much in Latin Jazz; it’s even more rare to find them as an integral part of a Latin Jazz band. I’m most proud of how everything from the percussion to the chamber orchestra to the woodwinds combines in an organic fashion, creating music that is pretty unique. You have to go a long way to find anything else out there that blends Afro-Cuban folkloric music with the modern forms, diverse instrumentation, and vocals that we have here.”

The expansion of orchestral colors speaks to another premise of this project. As European powers colonized the New World, they brought their own musical styles and dance forms which inevitably blended with the native and African idioms around them. Wallace describes this as a “creolization” of the European elements, pointing out that before it signified color or race, the word “Creole’ primarily referred to any person born in the New World. “This infusion of the Western European classical instruments is a major facet of what we’re exploring, but in the modern context; we’re taking our inspiration from that tradition,” he explains.

In addition, the people and culture of modern-day Cuba played a big role in spurring this project. “On our numerous trips to Cuba,” Spiro and Wallace write in the liner notes, “we have been inspired by the ‘genre inclusiveness’ of the nation’s music. The classical string players in the Havana Symphony play in popular dance bands and are eager to learn jazz theory and harmony; the top notch jazz players study and perform classical repertoire on a regular basis; and both the classical and jazz musicians have a deep knowledge of Afro-Cuban folkloric music. There are no apparent barriers between the styles, the musicians and the general public.”

And beyond that, the co-leaders were driven by their continuing fascination with the interactions and cross-influence among the many cultures that constitute what was once called the New World – the Americas (North, Central, and South). The foundation remains the African rhythms forcefully imported to this hemisphere, which catalyzed the development of so many musical idioms we now consider homegrown – a process in constant flux. “The music of the Americas is an ongoing, heterogeneous narrative,” Spiro and Wallace write. “Cultivated from the fields and nurtured in the streets and concert halls, the music is an intertwining roadmap of innumerable influences. The tonalities of the Middle East, the traditions of Africa and the Iberian Peninsula, indigenous new and old world archetypes, colonialism, rebellion and religion: all of these elements contributed to the birth of the countless syncretic forms of the New World….” Canto América is the latest manifestation of this process.

In his four-decade career, San Francisco native Wayne Wallace has collaborated with artists ranging from Count Basie to Stevie Wonder, Sonny Rollins to Carlos Santana, Tito Puente to Lena Horne and Aretha Franklin – as sideman, composer, arranger, and producer. His debut album as a leader, 2000’s Three In One (Spirit Nectar), showcased his writing skills and his encyclopedic knowledge of Afro-Cuban rhythms, the result of years of music-making in the close-knit Bay Area jazz community, where Wallace has played an oversized role. He has earned particular notice for his approach to Latin Jazz, a vision shaped by his work with Latin Jazz percussion giants Pete Escovedo and John Santos, in whose Machete Ensemble he served as music director for more than 20 years. As leader of the Wayne Wallace Latin Jazz Quintet, he has received six GRAMMY nominations to date.

Michael Spiro has performed on each of those nominated albums – a mere fraction of the literally hundreds of wide-ranging albums on which he has worked, which include GRAMMY-nominated albums by John Santos, pianist Mark Levine, and vocalist Karrin Allyson. (He has also performed with Ella Fitzgerald, Carlos Santana, and McCoy Tyner.) Internationally recognized for his expertise and his exploration of African and Latin rhythms, he has authored three books on Afro-Caribbean percussion. The first album under his own name, BataKetu (with Mark Lamson), released in 1996, was named by DRUM! Magazine as one of the “Top 50 Drum Records” of all time.

Wallace and Spiro met more than 30 years ago in San Francisco, forging a personal and professional relationship tempered by their shared interest in the music of Cuba. In 2008, Spiro joined the faculty of the Jacobs School of Music at IU, and under his direction the percussion department grew from its emphasis on orchestral work to include the world’s rhythms. He soon began leading a Latin Jazz big band at the school, which used many of Wallace’s acclaimed arrangements, which led to a guest appearance with the band -- and eventually to the school hiring Wallace as a professor in 2013.