At a time when the Buena Vista Social Club have drawn global attention to the musical melange that is Cuba — African and Spanish colours splashed dazzlingly together — it is with some trepidation we approach a Latin album by one of the maestros of American jazz. Even Ron Carter, bass player in the seminal Miles Davis quintet of the Sixties, admits he was uncertain about the challenge when he set out to record When Skies Are Grey.
Carter says that his percussionist Steve Kroon had suggested the idea some time ago. “He had been on my case for a while to make a record like this where the Latin element was the focus. But I kept arguing that there were plenty of other guys who had more experience. I had done a Brazilian album and that worked really well, but Latin?” the bassman wondered.
What Carter was keen to do was retain the jazz foundations of the work. “I figured that I had played in a Latin context enough times that we could pull it off by bringing a strong jazz mentality into the sessions. All of the players on this album are jazz musicians so we could bring other harmonic choices and not wear out the Latin basics,” he now explains.
So what’s the outcome? Well, I do believe that Carter, a veteran of more than 50 albums as leader, has probably made the Latin jazz recording he wanted to make — four originals, three standards — with Stephen Scott on piano and Harvey Mason on drums joining the rhythm section. But is this the album we wanted to hear?
The quartet plays with a concentration and intensity which is more than admirable in its way, yet there is little sense of joie de vivre in the performance. The opener, an original entitled “Loose Change” is chamber jazz at its focused best yet its cerebral air is draining rather than liberating. When Consuelo Velazquez’s oft recorded “Besame Mucho” follows, there is an expectation that the bottle may pop on the musical champagne and the intoxication begin. But again the discipline, the restraint, are to the fore rather than the fire.
“Qué Pasa” commences with some Bach-like keyboard phrases and then almost hints at opening out, before Carter’s own mellifluous styling gives Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Corcovado” a sweet entrée, but the numbers remain taut structures in the head rather than the catalyst of unfettered physical pleasure, which is what Latin rhythms have been generally associated with. “Cubano Chant”, penned by Ray Bryant, lifts the mood, with Stephen Scott’s keys occasionally lighting the blue touchpaper of the heart, but it’s a fraction too late. Ultimately When Skies Are Grey, made in the shadow of Carter’s wife’s death, is a serious accomplishment but for sheer Latin looseness, for a touch of true Cuban joy, it’s back to the Buena Vistas.