April 2001

The Conga Kings
Chesky CD JD-193
Released: 2000

by John Crossett

Musical Performance ***
Recording Quality ****1/2
Overall Enjoyment ***

[Reviewed on CD]If you watched Ken Burns’ recent PBS special, Jazz, you may have caught his all-too-brief mention of the influence Latin music has had on jazz. According to Burns, that influence began in the mid to late ‘50s, thanks to the efforts of Charlie Byrd, Dizzy Gillespie and others, and continues through today. However, Caribbean music has been casting its shadow over jazz since jazz’s birth in New Orleans, around the end of the 19th century. We jazz lovers owe a huge debt of gratitude to our Latin cousins for broadening our musical horizons.

Chesky Records has released The Conga Kings as a tribute to three of Latin music’s most talented and honored percussionists: Candido, Patato Valdes and youngster Giovanni Hidalgo.

And once again, Chesky has gone back to St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in NYC, with its excellent acoustics, as the recording venue. The result is one of Chesky’s best-sounding discs yet. That superb sound was aided in no small part by the sparse instrumentation used on The Conga Kings. Other than the three sets of congas (Candido front and center, Valdes to the right, and Hidalgo on the left), there are only two tres (a guitar-like instrument), bass, bongos, flute and claves. The vocals, most of which are of the background variety, are handled mainly by the three principals, with the assistance of two coro singers.

The sonics are up to Chesky’s usual standards, which is to say, excellent. It is extremely easy to follow all three conga players and their different styles and sounds. You get a real sense of the flesh of their hands striking the conga skins, as well as the reverberation of that sounds within the church. The flute soars; the sound of the flutist’s breath rolling down through the instrument is easily audible. About the only complaint I have is that the bass could have been a little more prominent in the mix. As is Chesky’s habit, the recording level is set low, giving the performance extended dynamic range -- this means you have to wick up your preamp’s volume more than normal, but the payoff is more than worth it.

This disc made me realize how much of today’s music -- popular, as well as jazz -- has the stamp of the Caribbean on it. Latin beats permeate the songs of artists as diverse as Jimmy Buffett, Ry Cooder and Ricky Martin.

This music got my heart beating and my blood racing. I had to stop taking notes and get up and dance, which is probably exactly what Candido, Patato and Giovanni would have wanted. This is an excellent listening choice for one of those cold winter days. Its images of warm, tropical evenings will make you forget, at least for a short while, just how cold it is outside. The Conga Kings is an enjoyable, if not necessarily noteworthy, release, and a recommendation comes easily.