Burlington's "psychotropical" ensemble Guagua have just released the local jazz album of the year. Recorded last winter, Pan Frito is a shining example of the musical talent in these here hills. The 12-member band trades in all-original Latin jazz with strong Caribbean overtones. It's an exuberant sound that's artful and unique.
Led by guitarist Geoff Kim, the group features some of the finest musicians in the Green Mountain jazz community. Many of 'em are far younger than their playing would suggest. Guagua's ranks include trumpeter Alex Toth, saxophonist Annakalmia Traver, pianist Shane Hardiman, guitarist Raphael Groten, conga player Keith Levenson, percussionists Carla Kevorkian and Gail Hagenbach, timbale player Twa Mercer, bassist John Thompson-Figuerosa, flutist Dominique Gagne and trombonist Andrew Moroz. Several of these players perform regularly around town in various configurations.
Guagua's seemingly eternal Tuesday-night residency at Burlington's Radio Bean has honed the band's chops to perfection. There's nary a note out of place, even when the music embraces improv. Each song is a treat, loaded with inventive melodies and rhythmic shifts.
Pan Frito has it all, from saucy Brazilian beats to lounge-ready chill-outs. Highlights include the suavely mellow "Samba Nova" and the playfully sly grooves of the title track. In between there's "Calypso #1," which features entrancing percussion and a prominent hook. I detected a Cuban influence in "Radio Frijol." Its minor-key licks recall Batista-era nightclubs and men in white fedoras.
Guagua aren't afraid to take Latin music out on a limb, as "Eastern Sun" demonstrates. The song opens with a haze of wah-wah tones that sound a bit like the intro to Miles Davis' In a Silent Way. Soon, cyclical percussion and an insistent staccato note join the gooey guitar. Horns weave through the mix like pythons as the music swells and recedes. It's surprisingly avant-garde, and remarkably listenable.
The melodies on "Open Road" are unrushed, resulting in a truly graceful piece of music. It's a fantastic close to an album with too many choice moments to recount.
What makes Guagua great is their sense of adventure. It'd be all too easy to serve up reheated bossa; instead, the band offers interesting new textures and melodic combinations, all while honoring tradition. The results are wonderful.