Song: “Afro Blue”
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Though they are one of the most rare breeds in all of music history, there are a handful of performers that truly transcend the title of “musician,” and one can seem them as an absolute vessel of the muse that is music itself. That is to say, when one experiences the music of these giants, it is as if they are being driven by some greater power, simply serving as the mechanism through which their brilliant arrangements are conveyed. This has perhaps never been more true or clear than when one inspects the timeless career of percussionist Mongo Santamaria, as he is without question in a class all his own. As a major force within multiple genres for more than half a century, his style, sound, and sheer presence have played a massive role in shaping countless iconic musicians, as well as many sub-genres onto themselves. Honing his talents in the New York City nightclubs in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, he was one of the few players at the time who clearly had his own unique take on jazz itself and he seemed to pride himself on being able to flawlessly fuse it together with the sound of whomever surrounded him on stage. To this day, few musicians deliver as absolutely mesmerizing and moving performances as Santamaria, and though his studio records are certainly worth owning, it is in his live recordings where one can experience the true genius of his music. To this end, there is no other song in music history that can compare to the sound and influence found within Mongo Santamaria’s magnificent 1959 composition, “Afro Blue.”
The number of versions of "Afro Blue" that exist are quite literally impossible to count, but it is the early live recordings of the song that offer the most impressive sound. Though the players on the recordings changed over the years, the structure of the song and the additional instruments necessary to create the song remain very much the same. In nearly every live recording of the song, one of the most fascinating aspects of "Afro Blue" is the way that Santamaria's brilliant rhythms lock in with the piano progression. Serving as almost a second "vocal," the piano in many ways engages the listener moreso than the rhythm itself, as it tends to find perfect ways to fill the open spaces that Santamaria leaves throughout the song. It is also the power that can be found on the versions from the early 1960's that set this song so far apart from others, as Santamaria has composed the ideal arrangement for every musician in the group to excel to their fullest potential. This contrasting sound is furthered by the saxophone that is also always present, and this aspect of "Afro Blue" was explored to its fullest potential when the song was slightly adapted and recorded by none other than John Coltrane. The interplay between these instruments and the often present flute playing is absolutely superb, and the balance of sound and instrumentation that exists in every Santamaria-led take on the song is what turned "Afro Blue" into a true jazz landmark.
It is due to his exceptional talents as a band leader, as well as his unparalleled skills on percussion that make Mongo Santamaria the icon that he remains to this day, and once one hears his sound, it is clear that he was playing and writing far beyond the visions of any of his contemporaries. When it comes to revealing the full power and sound of the conga, there are none that can compete with Santamaria, and it is also the amazing level of energy he is able to extract from the instrument that makes his playing so distinctive. At every turn, Santamaria blends together his native Cuban sound with the larger Latin-jazz sound, as well as elements of be-bop, soul, and even blues. It is the fact that he is able to place these different influences together into something completely new and exciting that makes "Afro Blue" such a unique musical experience, and it is also the way in which so many time signatures are simultaneously at play which make his versions superior to later covers. Seeming to have some members playing in three-four time, and others in six-eight, there is a magnificent poly-rhythm throughout the live versions of "Afro Blue," and it would be this sort of rhythmic experimentation that would pave the way for countless later artists. Working a number of other percussive elements along with the conga, all across every recording of "Afro Blue," Mongo Santamaria sets the standard for the term "percussionist" with his masterful performance.
While his name may not be as instantly recognizable as some other jazz luminaries, there is no question that the contributions of Mongo Santamaria remain one of the most vital pieces in the development of both jazz as well as Latin music in general. It is the way that Santamaria is able to bring such a raw, almost tribal sound and mood to "Afro Blue" that sets it so far apart from any other composition in history, and it is also this aspect that makes the live recordings of the track so superior to studio takes on the song. The outright freedom that one can sense in these live recordings is the very essence of jazz, as one can hear the lead on "Afro Blue" being seamlessly passed from one musician to the next, creating a fluid and relaxed feeling that plays in brilliant contrast to the upbeat pace of the song. It is also the wide range in musical octaves that give "Afro Blue" its amazing level of depth, as the distance between the notes on the flute and those coming forth from Santamaria's congas reinforce the idea of spirit and mood over musical tradition. This contrast in sound also provides for the almost hypnotic sense that "Afro Blue" carries, and it stands as one of the few tracks in jazz music that truly has no boundaries to its appeal. The multiple rhythms and exuberant mood that run all across the track not only prove the unique genius of Mongo Santamaria, but they remain the reasons that his live takes on "Afro Blue" continue to be the definitive version of this essential jazz composition.