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‘On The #1’: Steven Kroon lifts Latin jazz from dance stereotype

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Steven Kroon “On The One” album [May 7, 2014 Kroonatune Records]

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'On The #1' has been my signature phrase for whenever I sign off, it means to me being right on point, focused. That’s how I feel about this recording.

Latin jazz has many sides. Usually, people hear fast, impossible forensic dance beats, and dream of hot, humid Cuban nights. In New York percussionist Steven Kroon’s fifth major solo album “On The One,” Latin jazz is quite a bit more.

Kroon established himself long ago as a multi-genre percussionist backing names such as Aretha Franklin, the Temptations, and Luther Vandross, to name a few. His 45+-year career reflects a solid reputation as a musician who always goes beyond the limit, especially with Latin music.

Kroon’s all-encompassing experience and knowledge are in full power-play in this self-produced, May 7, 2014 release, covering the music of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Brazil, as interpreted through a colorful Nuyorican (New York Puerto Rican) upbringing in Harlem and Queens … grooving on Tito Rodriguez, Machito, and Tito Puente.

His regular go-to gigging band — most of them from his previous, critically acclaimed album “Without A Doubt” — holds up well. They have to, with Kroon on congas and percussion for days. Whether it’s vibraphonist Bryan Carrott, pianist/co-producer/musical director Igor Atalita, flautist Craig Rivers, or special guest star Tim Ries on sax, the musicians on board this project add to Kroon’s keynote vision substantially (“Roots” is a living example).

Kroon broadens the definition of Latin music within a jazz context by the song selections and styles of this nine-track, surprising cutthroat-groove album — even when holding back some of that punch. Fast, slow, and in-between, dance and ballad, are all represented through the common thread of a fluid, hip-swaying wink-and-nod to some form of Latin jazz. The conga-and-percussion influence here is, of course, very apparent without overshadowing the other instrumental contributions.

The title track by Kroon and Oscar Hernandez sets up the conventional Latin jazz mood nicely. There’s the expected rumba/mambo syncopation played on piano, bass, and an entire percussive arsenal at Kroon’s disposal. And then there’s what Kroon brings into the fiesta, his album’s signature vibe-flute-tenor triumvirate. “On The One” recreates those hot Cuban nights in the pulsating beats, but alleviates the driving force in the front of the line for everyday, as those beats keep trying to go somewhere leisurely.

In Donald Vega’s articulate “Dust Till Dawn” samba, the vibraphone and flute take over the majority of the progressive melodic beats, as Kroon’s command of the percussive line — complete with freaky samba hoots and whistles — maintains that underground Latin jazz hustle.

Flautist Craig Rivers floats over the bouncy island beats of the vibes and salsa-sweet percussion in the breezy, tranquil “I Know You Do,” another Kroon and Hernandez original. The son montuno pace slows considerably, yet could never be charged as slow (dull) — that Latin jazz thread ever in place — working an undeniable rhythm to the very end, in smaller shapes. The back-and-forth salsa melody might verge on monotonous, were it not for the interesting, intersecting lines of flute, vibe, and Kroon’s congas breaking up the familiar, maddening reprise.

The holy trinity of Kroon’s tenor/flute/vibes separates Sonny Henry’s “Roots” from the rest of the songs. At once delicate (with the faintest trickling of vibes and flute) and muscular (dig bassist Ruben Rodriguez’ tonic turns), the many complicated convergences threaten to send shivers up any listener’s spine.

George Cables wrote “Phantom Of The Island,” second-best off this album, and Kroon took it to another level, brushing bomba calypso, enhanced by the one-two of the vibes and flute. The percussion at the end (4:18-5:58) is everything, hypnotic, and filled with intense, dense movement.

“Touch,” the last song left, is on the other side of the spectrum, subdued but hardly rudimentary. Kroon and his band reinstate the thread of their versatile Latin jazz net — smooth jazz turned up a notch! — in the subliminal, Afro-Cuban 6/8 touches, Rodriguez on electric bass, Kroon hitting the rain gods, Carrott heightening sensitivity on vibes.

Steven Kroon gave his fifth album the title of “On The One” to reference his signature sign-off on any gig. “On The One has been my signature phrase for whenever I sign off, it means to me being right on point, focused. That’s how I feel about this recording,” he explained. “‘On The One’ is my fifth CD. I always felt that there was a magic to the number five, and I know that we have captured the magic in this recording.”

He’s right.

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