Album Reviews: Virgilio Armas – ‘De Repente’ & ‘Espejismo’ : Sensational 70’s Latin jazz twin releases.

The Breakdown

'De Repente' is a tight, punchy set of standards and interpretations. an album where the bustling verve of Caracas nightlife zings out from the grooves. 'Espejismo' downplays the hard bop agenda and takes a sensitive, intricate approach to a music that floats on the airy thermals of Son Cubano, Merengue and more rootsy bossa.
We Are Busy Bodies 8.7
De Repente 8.7
Espejismo 8.7

They are definitely spoiling us ! So far this year Toronto’s We Are Busy Bodies have graced us with seminal releases from the less frequented corners of South African jazz history. Now they’ve switched the spotlight to the equally hip seventies Venezuelan scene where the fusion of American jazz and Latin stylings reconsidered the possibilities. Available from 28th October We Are Busy Bodies latest reveal comes with the twin release of ‘‘De Repente’ by Virgilio Armas Trio and ‘Espejismo’ by Virgilio Armas y su Grupo .

Maybe the sheer volume of Brazilian music has dominated our attention for too long but what these releases emphasise is that jazz making in Caracas during this era was just as vivacious and in its own way vital. To capture that, these albums focus on the work of a key figure in shaping the Venezuelan version during such heady times, Virgilio Armas, pianist, band leader and composer. A well-weathered clubland performer, Armas had released the ‘Estamos En Algo’ LP in 1968 as part of the boogaloo ensemble Sexteto Fantasia but by the beginning of the new decade he was emerging as a front-liner. The ‘De Repente’ album from 1970 captures him heading up his own post bossa trio with long-time partners Rodolfo Buenaño (bass) and Guillermo Tariba (drums) to deliver a tight, punchy set of standards and interpretations.

The two part title track, a re-shaping of one of big band legend Aldemaro Romero’s many gems, takes a classic sharp edged ‘balanco’ swing at pace then turns it inside out for the second take. Here Armas shows his creative curiosity, building the song around the snug, less dramatic tones of his electric piano before returning to his grand for a hyper-fluent, no pause finale. That same mind-boggling assurance leaps out from the other Romero cover on the album ‘Venezuela En Fiesta’, all tumbling bossa riffs, agile montunos and slick slides into the sweetest sashays. It’s a three minute summary of what musical precision can do.

Other familiar standards may be a little less distinctive although that doesn’t detract from their core quality. Erroll Garner’s ‘Misty’ keeps necessarily faithful to the end-of-the-night promise of the original and ‘Bumpin’ On Sunset’, although losing some of the bluesy tension that Wes Montgomery brought to his song, adds some swaggering menace with the trio’s percussive strut. The band’s version of Ellington’s ‘C Jam Blues’ is another thrilling romp, taken fast with an easy Latin swing and powered by Armas’s virtuosic drive. Armas and crew also show more than a hint of tongue-in-cheek ambition with the twinkles of Bach woven into their arrangement of Bread’s soft rock schmoozer ‘If’. Want some seventies chamber-jazz Venezuela style? Well here the Virgilio Armas Trio more than deliver.

Elsewhere on the album the bustling verve of Caracas nightlife zings out from the grooves. Getz/Gilberto luminary Tom Jobin’s ‘Aquas De Marzo’ rolls, curls and smiles with the jaunty melody quirkily picked out at a whistled pitch. Even more shoulder rolling is the trio’s hustling version of ‘Petite Mambo’ where the Buenano/Tariba rhythm section raucously rap without ever losing direction.

To say that ‘De Repente’ has been hard to find for crate diggers would be understatement. Originally self-financed by Virgilio himself, put out on the miniscule Discos A&B label and sold at the trio’s shows, this release, sensitively re-mastered by Noah Mintz is a real gift from We Are Busy Bodies but they don’t finish there. Alongside resurrecting this rarity, the label has astutely made its follow up ‘Espejismo’ simultaneously available.

Made three years on from ‘De Repente’ it shows the progression and shifting perspectives in the music of Vergilio Armas with the essences of Venezuelan music to the fore. Consequently his group has expanded to a five piece, still with the Buenano/Tariba bass/drum partnership but with added percussion from Tatta Guerra and the distinctive flute of Dominico Morett. Another key move on ‘Espejismo’ is that Armas has taken over much of the writing duties and this time around the legendary Freddy Leon produces.

So it’s no surprise that 1973 record downplays the hard bop agenda and takes a sensitive, intricate approach to a music that floats on the airy thermals of Son Cubano, Merengue and more rootsy Bossa. Opener ‘Tamanaco’ casts you off with an elegant swooping flute melody plus an almost calypso lilt. More economic and less flamboyant than the strident Armas trio, the tune still retains the pianist’s subtle power and glowing musicality. These aspects underpin all the Armas compositions on the LP. The sun kissed ‘Sombre El Orinoco’ bursts from a gently rippling flute pattern to a more boisterous bossa breakdown while ‘Canaima’ whirls around in a frenetic speed cumbia carnival, whipped along by Armas’s vamping chord stabs and giddy runs. Perhaps the band leader’s most individual composition comes with the lush naturalism of ‘Sueno Indio’. Organic rhythms, twin tracked flutes and a quaking piano foundation suggest the mythic or ancient in a track that could have unwound itself for much longer.

Not that you ever fully escape the urban dynamism on ‘Espejismo’. Tracks like the densely percussive ‘Rio Manzares’ or the high octane rush of ‘Dona Mentira’ remind you that essentially Virgilio Armas y su Grupo made music reflecting city life. That focus intensifies with the album closer, ‘Caracas Moderna’. Written by producer Freddy Leon the tune scuttles through angular chord descents before latching onto a slightly surreal waltzing resolve. Brief, abstract, and illusive, it’s a fitting coda to an intriguing record that is hard to pin down but then ‘Espejismo’ does neatly translate as ‘Mirage’.

So there you have it, two albums but one conclusion – if you’re into Latin jazz, hard- bossa or music that’s timelessly cool then these releases are a must have. They are a complete, uncomplicated pleasure and privilege to have around once more.

Get your copies of ‘De Repente’ by Virgilio Armas Trio and ‘Espejismo’ by Virgilio Armas y su Grupo from your local record shop or direct from:

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