Alexis Baro Returns Home with Latest Album, Sugar Rush
by Brigido Francisco Galvan Ph.D. Ethnomusicology
Independent Researcher, Freelance Musician, Music Educator
The evening of Wednesday, September 7th, trumpet and flugelhorn player, Alexis Baro will be officially releasing his 5th album, Sugar Rush at Lula Lounge. An alumnus of Cuba’s legendary, Amadeo Roldán School of Music, Baro belongs to the cream of Afro-Cuban jazz virtuosi who in recent years, left their native Cuba to make Toronto their home.
Since first arriving in Canada in 2001 he has pursued new musical endeavours at a breakneck pace. He quickly became a much sought-after session player, touring nationally and internationally and keeping one of the busiest schedules in Toronto. He’s recorded and/or toured with David Foster, Paul Shaffer, Nikky Yanofski, Tom Jones, Paquito D’Rivera, Andrea Bocelli, Lonnie Smith, and Omara Portuondo from the Buena Vista Social Club band, Afro-Cuban All-Stars and Cubanismo, and this is naming only a few.
Still, Baro’s life as an artist in his own right has kept prolifically and successfully apace with four album releases, three nominations in the Canadian National Jazz awards for “Best Trumpet Player,” and a Gold Medal from the Global Music Awards for jazz under his belt. Not surprisingly, in 2015 Alexis Baro was recognized in Billboard Magazine’s “Emerging Artists” section with a feature interview.
The keyword for Alexis Baro continuing success is not simply virtuosity but also versatility. His musicianship and personality have allowed him to make himself at home in so many different musical worlds, including that of swing, funk, pop, R&B, Latin jazz, fusion, salsa and, of course, timba, Afro-Cuban jazz and traditional Cuban music. Baro explained to me that he always keeps his ears wide open, absorbing everything within earshot.
He credits his musicality to Pueblo Nuevo, the tight-knit barrio where he grew up and has been home to the most remarkable number of internationally influential musicians to come out of Havana. Sugar Rush is the creative product of Baro’s Pueblo Nuevo Jazz Project. In a musical sense, the project is a return, as he put it, ‘to his ‘hood,’ which is also to say, a return to his Afro-Cuban roots. As Baro clarified to me, the phrase “sugar rush,” refers to the rush of adrenaline Afro-Cuban slaves needed to run away from the sugar cane plantations as their white masters with their dogs followed closely on their heels.
Rhythmically, Sugar Rush pays homage to some of the most important Afro-Cuban genres, including rumba, the abakua traditions, timba, and danzón. The jazz production strategy of recording the whole ensemble live in the studio could not be more evident in this album. What brings it to life is spontaneous musical interaction, particularly between the rhythm section and lead instruments during the improvisation sections. It also helps that the ensemble has worked together extensively and, so, they are more than just acquainted musically. Except for Caminando Por La Vida,” all tracks are performed with a quintet formation. It is an impressive cast of masters: along with Baro on trumpet and flugelhorn; Adrean Farrugia plays piano in five of the nine tracks; Jeremy Ledbetter takes over the keyboard on four of them; Jeff King plays tenor sax in all but one track in which Luis Deniz plays alto; Roberto Riverón and Yoser Rodriguez share duties on bass; Mitchel Amhed plays drums and Jorge Luis “Papiosco” percussion.
Melody and groove are key elements in this album, even in the solos. Yes you can sit down and listen, but you may also want to dance. Uptempo tracks like, “Sigue mé,” “Sugar Rush,” “Inner Face,” “La Guarida” and “El Camino” contain moments of sheer virtuosity without turning into abstractions or cerebral exercises. You will not hear Baro play everything he can play in every solo or every piece, nor hit every hight note I have heard him reach. There are also no overextended solos in any of the pieces, which usually drive listeners to distraction. These are very articulate improvisers who actually have something to say, and they don’t need five minutes each to say it.
“Paseo Por El Prado,” is a beautiful danzón, one of the first urban genres to emerge in Cuba at the turn of the 20th century. One of my favourites is “Caminando Por La Vida,” a reflective piece performed as a trio. The absence of a bass player and the sparsity of the texture are two the elements that give this piece its character. And it is Baro on the flugelhorn, supported by Jeremy Ledbetter on keyboard and “Papiosco,” laying down a rumba guaguancó rhythm on percussion.
This album is bound to make waves in the world of jazz and beyond. Welcome back home Alexis! We hope you stay a while in Pueblo Nuevo before you embark in new musical explorations.
Sugar Rush is being released on the Toronto-based G-Three Label and will be available on iTunes and Amazon in the coming weeks. Copies can be purchased at Lula Lounge on Sept 7. Follow Alexis Baro at alexisbaro.com and on Facebook.