Graded on a Curve:
Los Hacheros, Bambulaye

Those wishing to soak up vibrant Latin roots in a contemporary context have a prime opportunity right in their midst, for the second LP from Brooklyn’s Los Hacheros is complete and on the cusp of release. A five-piece band deeply informed by tradition yet infused with verve only possible by routinely ruling bandstands in the here and now, Los Hacheros transfer this knowledge and experience into the grooves of Bambulaye with uncommon success. It’s a record of astounding assurance and power out February 26 on the Chulo label as distributed by the discerning ears in charge at Daptone.

Bambulaye is simultaneously a trove of Latin musical history and a vessel of sweat-inducing grooves; beyond slapping the record onto a turntable, perhaps the easiest way to relate Los Hacheros’ duality of insight and energy is to report on gigs spanning from the Museum of Modern Art and the Lincoln Center to performances at quincañeras (birthday parties for Latin American girls turning fifteen years old) and Bronx strip clubs.

The assortment of venues says much about Los Hacheros’ sheer utility, while the breadth of their approach underscores their music’s importance without making any fuss over legitimacy; son montuno, guaracha, and salsa, all described in Bambulaye’s promo notes as “folkloric” styles, get combined with Bomba, a highly intense rhythm harkening back to the mountains of Puerto Rico.

Unsurprisingly there is mention of the great Cuban musician and bandleader Arsenio Rodriguez, Latin jazz behemoth Ray Barretto, and the long-serving record label Fania as Los Hacheros present a truly organic hybrid of classic and modern. No chasing after trends is in evidence, however; instead, the program is built to last and even more than its predecessor Pilon exudes musicality that’s respectful yet unhampered by orthodoxy and on occasion is borderline awe-inspiring.

Los Hacheros consists of Hector “Papote” Jimenez on congas and lead vocals (and wielding the improvised verses known as soneos), Eddie Venegas on violin, trombone and vocals, Itai Kriss on flute, campana, guiro and vocals, William Ash on bass, and Jacob Plasse on the distinctive Cuban tres guitar. For the second time, Plasse assumed production duties.

Pilon was cut live on a 388 Tascam tape machine, released on Chulo in 2012 and provided with distribution muscle through Daptone; it’s a fine debut, and rather than futz around with the program Plasse relies upon the same analog tactic here to stronger result. Bambulaye ranks in the slim percentage of recordings primed to equally please connoisseurs of adept musicianship and those looking to simply move on the dance floor (not that a person can’t inhabit both roles), and part of the documentation strategy favors depth and warmth over shallow slickness.

The title track begins in a deceptively serene manner, though the group inevitably resets the program with vigorous rhythm, emphatic vocals, and glorious instrumental range. Folks moderately familiar with Latin sounds will recognize the congas, the deft blend of lead and backing voices, the flurries of flute and the superb gusts of trombone; it’s the restrained distortion of the tres guitar and fluidity of the violin that will possibly inspire a sense of surprise.

At the risk of being mistaken for hyperbole, “Bambulaye” navigates a level of interaction many bands will go their entire existence without attaining, and that it serves as this record’s opener emphasizes confidence but more accurately pinpoints the strength of Los Hacheros’ material. “Pintate” follows, commencing with a prelude of cleanly strummed guitar and then promptly kicking into gear.

Amongst its noteworthy attributes is an extended repeated guitar phrase nicely elevating the track’s midsection as generous swells of trombone and Jimenez’ impassioned voice are found throughout. “Esta Noche Corazon” sensibly slows things down, but across nearly seven minutes the instrumental vibrancy and emotional heft doesn’t flag.

Just as wisely they waste no time in rekindling the heat but interestingly do so with a vocal vehicle, though “Justicia” certainly isn’t lacking in rhythmic sparks as its interjections of horn, snaky guitar lines, and tendrils of violin remain expertly rendered. Chulo’s promotional writing offers an astute observation regarding Los Hacheros’ ability to sound like a band more than twice their actual size, but just as significant is how Bambulaye’s songs lack clutter as portions of “Justicia” scales it back to two instruments and Jimenez’ singing.

As the others join in the dexterous collective dynamic is skillfully enhanced. Likewise, the subtle tension of “Querida Madre”’s initial segment quietly adds to the record’s sum; the pace (and pulse) quickening bout of trombone grabs the attention more forthrightly. And ultimately, this weave of small and grander additives aids these nine selections in being considerably more than a document of an excellent live band.

Indeed, this album stands up extremely well to home listening, and while Plasse’s production is a crucial factor in this equation, Bambulaye also flows better than Pilon. Furthermore, “Bomba de Loisa” brandishes exquisite dialogue between trombone and flute that’s mirrored by the interplay of Jimenez and his fellow vocalists.

Giving every aspect of the group numerous turns in an adeptly rotating spotlight, “Timbalaye” is a late highpoint; there are enticing tres patterns (including a remarkable solo spot), soulful clarity of voice, raw waves of ‘bone, layered percussion, disciplined (i.e. non-show-off) fluting, agile and weighty bass, and a diversity a melodic angles from the violin. The band emits a relaxed air never faltering into softness, and near the close they adroitly redirect into an exchange of drums and vocal as a splendid capper.

They tend toward lengthier workouts, but “Las Nieves de Brooklyn” is a succinct bit of violin and flute-driven attractiveness leading into “Descarga para Abe.” Having showcased sharpened talent on this outstanding LP, Los Hacheros get a little loose in its closing moments, opening on an expansive discussion between flute and ‘bone, tightening into spirited Latin propulsion and then ending it all almost casually, as if insinuating Bambulaye as just another step in their development and that the best is yet to come.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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