by Steve Pick
Part Five (or maybe Six) of the "Summertime" Summer
Mongo Santamaria was a king of boogaloo and Cuban jazz. Heck, he wrote "Afro-Blue," one of the great jazz standards of the last fifty years, and he did the definitive take on Herbie Hancock's classic "Watermelon Man" before Hancock even recorded it. He led countless musicians from his post at the congas, and never failed to deliver a terrific performance. That said, he was at his creative peak from about 1959 to 1967, when it seemed he could do no wrong.
Which is why I'm so frustrated I can't hear his 1964 version of "Summertime" from the album "La Bamba." It's apparently out of print, as is the Rhino career retrospective "Skin on Skin" which contains the cut. He did a live version in 1980 that is okay, but suffers from the presence of harmonica hack Toots Thielemans, so we jump ahead to the album "Brazilian Sunset" which features yet another live version from 1996, when Santamaria was 74 years old.
This particular version is a tour de force for alto saxophonist Jimmy Cozier and especially pianist Ricardo Gonzalez. With the cuban clave set at a cha cha beat, the band works the chords of "Summertime" into a polyrhythmic, intensely danceable, seemingly insatiable backing. Cozier sets the pace with two choruses of the melody straight, then starts attacking it from different angles, never flying away from the chords but working a series of variations for more than 2 minutes. But then it really takes off when Gonzalez pumps out his own take on the changes. This is Afro-Cuban jazz of the highest order, and while I'm curious to hear a younger band invigorated with the thrills of discovery that Santamaria would have led in 64, I can't complain about having this fine take on the song from a much later date.
So far, we've discussed the approaches singers have taken to "Summertime." The song works just fine as a basis for jazz improvisation, which is interesting considering how incredibly simple it is. Two short verses, with lots of rich chords capable of generating new melodic ideas, yet so tightly constructed as to keep the original close to the vest most of the time. There are lots of different jazz takes on the song, but my wife suggested I listen to this Latin one, and that seemed like a good idea to me.