Flash of the Spirit
To understand the eclectic nature of bassist/guitarist/composer Santi Debriano’s Flash of the Spirit, it helps to understand his makeup. The native Panamanian, who moved to New York at age 4, has never abandoned his original heritage, so for essentially an entire lifetime he has lived in several worlds – that of Central America, that of urban America, and perhaps mostly that of Black urban America. In fact, the album bears the same title as the most influential book that Debriano has read, Robert Farris Thompson’s Flash of the Spirit, which examines the extent to which African traditions and customs have been retained in American Black culture. Debriano says, “That book describes my ancestral struggle to stay present in the many worlds I live in but also to never forget where I came from.”
It can be a difficult balance to navigate, but Debriano’s high penchant for curiosity has long been a main driver. As one would expect, there’s tons to digest here and the music covers plenty of ground. There are inventive and almost seemingly reconstructed covers of tunes by Kenny Barron, Kenny Dorham, Ornette Coleman, and Billie Holiday mixed with seven originals that also span a breadth of styles. Circlechant, his genre-defying ensemble is another of his projects with diverse approaches both in material and unconventional configuration of instruments. His rhythm mate is drummer Tommy Campbell, whom Debriano’s known since both were college students in Boston, playing in Stan Strickland’s band, Sundance, and pianist Bill O’Connell, who, like Debriano, performs with consummate fluency regardless of whether the gig’s is straight ahead or Latin jazz. A small but powerful woodwind section includes alto saxophonist Justin Robinson and flutist Andrea Brachfeld. Complimenting the core quintet are Francisco Mela, a Cuban-born, raised and educated drummer known for collaborations with saxophonist Joe Lovano and pianist Chucho Valdés, Brazilian percussionist Valtinho Anastacio, a veteran of Circlechant, and Tim Porter, on jazz mandolin.
Let’s start with his originals. It’s a danger easily avoided by starting at the beginning, where Debriano’s “Awesome Blues,” a percussive hard driven blues in seven, featuring beautiful and precise unison playing on the tune’s theme by Robinson and Brachfeld—punctuated by Debriano’s potent bass lines and response to the woodwinds. “Funky New Dorp” carries a smart groove with an Eastern-flavored head, again with strong turns from Robinson and Brachfeld. It’s a nod to Debriano’s Staten Island community, a tribute to how that neighborhood came together and supported one another during Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Flutist Brachfeld mentored by giants like Jimmy Heath, Yusef Lateef and Eddie Daniels, lays down an expansive solo. Debriano’s adventurous solo bass is next. On “For Heaven’s Sake” he covers Lady Day with a sly little quote of Monk’s “Round Midnight.”
Debriano then engages in a duo with beautiful piano from O’Connell and rather suspenseful, haunting bowed playing that suggests an untold story on “Beneath the Surface.” These moments call for some uplift in both mood and tempo delivered by “Toujours Petits,” written for his three children. The other two Debriano compositions are “Ripty Boom” and “Natural Causes.” The former is a blues in six with a rugged, noirish feel. Brachfeld, once more, offers a soaring solo before ceding her time to Robinson, who finds clever ways to dance around the tune’s melodic frame. “Natural Causes” has drummer Tommy Campbell deftly navigating subtle time changes, while Robinson lays down another solo, where, at times, his alto playing takes on distinct tenor-like qualities. Anastacio’s presence on berimbau and congas, as on “Toujours Petits,” adds seasoning in just the right measure, while gorgeous unison playing, while usually Brachfeld and Robinson, is rendered here by Brachfeld and Debriano, while Robinson plays a harmony line. These unison passages are a central component to this recording.
Now to the other three covers. Debriano considers “Humpty Dumpty” to be Ornette Coleman’s “most tuneful” composition and indeed you’ll hear Robinson, O’Connell, Debriano, and Brachfeld stating the theme as the unit engages in some free jazz. They close with tunes composed by two Kennys: Dorham and Barron. Dorham’s “La Mesha,” originally a ballad written for Joe Henderson’s Page One (1963), is the album’s one true hard-bop ballad. And in the tradition of tunes like Coltrane’s “Naima” and Shorter’s “Infant Eyes,” Robinson delivers the requisite emotional depth. Meanwhile, Debriano overdubs on clean and soulful electric guitar. Kenny Barron’s “Voyage” only vaguely resembles the original as Debriano chooses to leave the piano out. Instead, infused by an Afro-Cuban songo rhythm, Brachfeld and Debriano engage in freestyle dialogue underpinned by Debriano’s ever present bass.
The album title seems especially apt as Debriano and bandmates seem to glide in and out of many grooves and styles rather seamlessly. At times, just as you feel you might be missing something, you as a listener are placed in a new and different context, flashing from one envisioned community to another. We did warn you that there’s plenty to digest here, leaving one little choice but to go for repeat listens.
- Jim Hynes