When Sammy Figueroa starts the conversation by saying “You need to listen to this. It’s the best record I’ve ever made,” you listen.
It’s not just that he has played and recorded with an extraordinary array of artists from Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins and the Brecker Brothers to Mariah Carey, David Bowie and Ashford & Simpson; or that since settling in Miami Beach and venturing out as a leader in 2001 he has recorded three albums and has been twice nominated for a GRAMMY®. It’s also that in a business of oversized egos, Figueroa remains healthily unassuming.
So when we met that morning in April, in that coffee shop in South Beach, and he just couldn’t stop talking about the music in Imaginary World, without having heard a note you just knew. He spoke about the contributions of long-time collaborators Silvano Monasterios and Gabriel Vivas and the impact of drummer David Chiverton. “He changed the color of the music,” said Figueroa. “I told him that I didn’t want him to play Latin. I just wanted him to do his thing. I would take care of the Latin [grooves].” He noted the maturation of Alex Pope Norris, on trumpet, and Troy Roberts, on sax.
What was clear from the start, he said, is that he didn’t want to make another Afro-Latin jazz record.
He was “tired of the macho posturing, the showing off and the competition to see who can play faster and louder or who can get the highest trumpet note. Please.” he said. “What I told Gaby and Silvano as we started to talk about this recording, was that I wanted something different — more lyrical, another sound — and they got it. What they brought to the table is just fantastic.” In Imaginary World, subtlety re-frames and enhances the power.
But, in truth, Figueroa’s previous outings were notable precisely because the soloing and individual displays were largely set to the service of the piece, to advance the story being told. His music has been — increasingly, as he grew in his role as a leader— a music of dynamics, unexpected and felicitous sound choices (such as the use of the water jug-like Udu drum, prominent here), and fearless re-workings of rhythms from the African diaspora in the Americas, including Venezuela, Uruguay, Brazil and, it goes without saying, Puerto Rico and Cuba.
Rather than a radical departure, Imaginary World suggests a logical, organic result of what has been Figueroa’s steady evolution, not just as a player but as a bandleader. Revolution or evolution, the result is impressive.
The music is firmly anchored in the Afro-Latin Jazz tradition. But as Figueroa brings to bear his experiences in other musical worlds, as he smartly steps back while making his imprint deeper, the music also gains depth and improbable angles and shadings. The writing, the ensemble playing and the soloing on this album feel as of one piece, flowing easy on the ear — yet you soon realize that the stories being told in the music are never revealed upon one listen.
“I wanted music that people would play again and again,” said Figueroa. “Not just something flashy but something of substance, expressive.”
You will want to play Imaginary World again and again — and something will be revealed, each time.
Imaginary World was released in June, 2015