On Saturday one of the final remaining links to the heyday of Cuban music, brilliant and innovative bassist Israel “Cachao” Lopez, died from kidney failure in Miami at the age of 89.
Most of the obits I’ve seen in the past couple of days have given him credit for helping invent the mambo, which is somewhat accurate. According to Cuban music authority Ned Sublette, who called Cachao “arguably the most important bassist in twentieth-century popular music,” Lopez joined Arcaño y Sus Maravillas–one of the best charanga bands the island ever produced, led by the great flutist Antonio Arcaño–in 1937, at just 19, and there helped develop a tune written by his piano-playing brother Orestes “Macho” Lopez called “Mambo.” The tune, a danzon, included a tough, fast repeating instrumental section that was dubbed a mambo, but the mambo as we know it–particularly through the diamond-hard music of Perez Prado–wouldn’t emerge till about a decade later, and it was far more elaborate and layered.
Equally important and less disputable was the bassist’s role in creating the “descarga” or Cuban jam session, which borrowed the spontaneity of jazz but retrofitted it with fierce Afro-Cuban rhythms. Late last year the Spanish label Yemaya issued a crucial double CD called Cachao Descargas: the Havana Sessions that collects the earliest recorded descargas. Joined by players like Generoso “El Tojo” Jimenez (trombone), Richard Egues (flute), Tata Guines (congas), Orestes Lopez (piano), and Armando “Chocolate” Armenteros (trumpet), Lopez not only made an institution of a practice that would prove vital to the development of Cuban music but also established the roots of Latin jazz. Recorded between 1957 and 1961, the music is never less than thrilling and heavy, bursting with a sense of discovery that’s enhanced by the intense rhythmic energy and melodic sophistication. By 1964 Lopez was living in New York (after a two-year detour in Spain), where he maintained a strong presence, exerting a profound influence on what would become salsa. But after moving to Las Vegas (and, by his own admission, developing a gambling problem), he worked less and became less visible. Fortunately, when he settled in Miami things improved: actor Andy Garcia produced several albums for Lopez, including a pair that won Grammys, and also made two documentaries about him. The second, Cachao, Ahora Sí, is to be released next month.
Joachim Kuhn & Majid Bekkas, Kalimba (ACT)
Josef och Erika, Small Small Small Small Sounds (Caprice)
Kenny Cox & the Contemporary Jazz Quintet, Introducing (Blue Note)
Fred Frith & Chris Brown, Cutter Heads (Intakt)
Randall of Nazareth, Randall of Nazareth (Drag City)