Richmond, Virginia, is hardly the first place that springs to mind when the subject of contemporary salsa comes up, but it’s the home of Bio Ritmo, an eight-piece band active since the mid-90s that’s been tinkering for years with the classic clave-driven sound forged by the Fania Records roster in the 60s and 70s. They’ve tried a relatively poppy approach and dabbled in the jacked-up beats of Cuban timba–they have a curiosity that’s not stifled by purism–but the down side of the members’ varying musical backgrounds (reggae, disco, rock, et cetera) is that no one is a bona fide salsa virtuoso.

Nonetheless, on the new Bionico (Locutor), engineered by Fania vet Jon Fausty and dominated by the band’s solid originals, Bio Ritmo nail the music’s rhythmic fundamentals. The horn section is skintight, executing the propulsive charts with zesty drive, and though singer Rei Alvarez will never be mistaken for Marc Anthony or Victor Manuelle, he gets the job done. Unfortunately pianist Marlysse Rose Simmons often shadows her montuno figures with thick analog synthesizer or Fender Rhodes counter-riffs, and they sometimes get to be a bit much–salsa doesn’t hold up well when it’s weighed down.

The biography that accompanied by copy of the new album carries on about the band’s commitment to experimentation, but to me it just sounds like Bio Ritmo haven’t settled on an identity–I guess trying a new tack with each record is better than going nowhere, but in this case I think I’d prefer to see what the group would sound like if it stayed put long enough to really master something.

Bio Ritmo plays a free ticketed show tonight at the Old Town School at 8:30 PM as part of the La Peña series, then does a somewhat pricier gig Saturday night at the Colombian restaurant Las Tablas at 9 PM.

Today’s playlist:

Roc C, All Questions Answered (Stones Throw)
Atomic, Retrograde (Jazzland Recordings)
Festival, Come, Arrow, Come! (Language of Stone)
Count Basie, King of Swing (Verve)
Sachiko M & Sean Meehan, Sachiko M & Sean Meehan (self-released)