Alex "Apolo" Ayala – Onwards (2012)

Alex “Apolo” Ayala marries modern jazz ideas with Latin-inspired rhythms, connecting the ideas with a blend of spry originals and brilliantly reworked classics. Not that it seemed that way at first.

The Puerto Rico-born Ayala, who played bass, produced and composed four of the eight tracks on Onwards, actually begins the opener “Princesa Wayuu” with a trundling bass figure – setting a laid back, crepuscular tone. This opening segment soon gives way, however, to a boisterously swinging number, as pianist Luis Marin and drummer Raul Maldonado’s explore a series of polyrhythms and textures. What had appeared to be nothing more than a charming if not completely formed meditation, brilliantly transformed into a layered and involving opening statement. And these guys never, ever look back. In fact, by the time Ayala steps to the fore again for his solo turn, Marin and Maldonado are in full flight – revealing themselves as active and adventurous foils.

Reedmen Jonathan Suazo and Norberto “Tiko” Ortiz join for another Ayala original called “Los Cosas Que No Se Pueden Decir,” along with Gerson Orjuela and Amarylis Rios on drums and percussion, respectively. This broader palette, even while it occasionally crowds out Ayala’s performance at the bass, underscores his tandem talents as a composer. Whereas the opening track on Onwards had an aggressive, at times noisy complexity, “Los Cosas” explores a leaner rhythmic structure – as Ayala smartly gives his guest stars, in particular the spiraling saxists, more room to shine.

“Pensando en Agua,” the initial cover tune on Onwards, was composed by Felipe Fournier, with a galloping new arrangement by Ayala. As the group traces right along the edge of free jazz, Marin’s cascading lines, graceful and debonair, keep the song upright. The results are both challenging and emotional. Up next is Steve Swallow’s “Falling Grace,” again with a different arrangement courtesy of Ayala. Maldonado’s skipping groove is joined by guitarist Rafael Rosa, who adds an intriguingly psychedelic shading to the proceedings. At the same time, Ayala keeps a firm grip on the song’s underlying structure – meaning the song remains articulate, hip and forever swinging. When Ayala and Rosa tangle during the solo section, the song takes an even grittier turn, almost like soul jazz. Marin’s insistent, Oscar Peterson-esque piano work begins the track back around for a dazzling restatement of theme.

Ayala is then featured on a deeply expressive, heart-rending solo remake of Arthur Schwartz’s “Alone Together.” Here, perhaps more than anywhere else on Onwards, the bassist shows himself to be an artist of high craft and resolute power. “Alone Together” isn’t just elegantly played – it’s completely realized, even without another instrumental voice. That’s no easy task, considering how difficult it is to make complete musical statements within this track’s unusual setting. Marin sits out for the deeply ruminative “Lamento y Esperanza,” replaced by guest pianist Eduardo Zayas, who begins playing with a touch so delicate that even Maldonado’s brushes improbably obscure him at times. The tune eventually gathers strength enough to become a lyrical, Bill Evans-inspired ballad – yet still retains an involving, late-night poignancy.

Trumpeter Yturvides Vilches’ bright flourishes are initially the dominant voice on “Danzon Para Maria Cristina.” But soon, Marin, Ayala and Maldonado are also joined by Luis Manuel “Manolo” on percussion – and the track returns to the undulating river of rhythms that made “Princesa Wayuu” such a fun ride. Yet, on balance, it’s nowhere near as impetuous. Ayala, who was so ethereal just one song before, picks up the pace here – but without becoming so fussy that he complicates things. The result is a Latin-inspired masterpiece of understatement.

Ayala closes with another solo bass excursion, this time exploring the John Coltrane classic “Giant Steps.” He restates the familiar theme with a series of brawny plucks, then dives headlong into his own thoughts with blazing energy and imagination. The very authority with which he attacks this legacy piece speaks both to his own impressive musical vision, but also to his burgeoning talents as an instrumentalist.

Ayala is one to watch.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has also explored music for publications like USA Today, Gannett News Service, All About Jazz and Popdose for nearly 30 years. Honored as newspaper columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section that was named Top 10 in the nation by the AP in 2006. Contact him at nderiso@somethingelsereviews.com.