Papo Vázquez leads his Mighty Pirate Troubadours through an uplifting blend of jazz and Caribbean rhythms | Music Review | Chicago Reader

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Papo Vázquez leads his Mighty Pirate Troubadours through an uplifting blend of jazz and Caribbean rhythms


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Trombonist Papo Vázquez had plenty of reasons to feel reflective this past spring. He was about to record Breaking Cover, his tenth album under his own name, and he’d spent more than 40 years performing with some of New York’s top Latin ensembles, among them Jerry Gonzalez’s Fort Apache Band and the Fania All-Stars. The pandemic turned recording into a formidable challenge, and the horrifying impact of COVID-19 on the ability of people to safely congregate threatened to make the dances and concerts he typically worked a thing of the past. But instead of lamenting an uncertain future, he made a jazz album that combines diverse Caribbean rhythms and delivers a crucial message of hope. Vázquez specializes in compositions that draw from bomba, and he and his group the Mighty Pirates Troubadours meld that drum-based Puerto Rican style with funk on “Fairmount Park,” while on “El Cuco/The Boogeyman” the repeated riffs of pianist Rick Germanson serve as a springboard for a spirited exchange between the bandleader and alto saxophonist and coproducer Sherman Irby. A different island folk genre, the aguinaldo, is traditionally played during the Christmas season by groups of revelers who go door to door, and on “Saludo Campesino” the front-line horns convey its sense of ebullience—it’s as if the eight musicians spontaneously decided to celebrate the spirit of the holiday gatherings that we once took for granted. Exuberance isn’t the only mood running through Breaking Cover, though: Vázquez’s quiet lyricism emphasizes the subtle dynamics of the ballad “Shadows.” His plaintive solo, which segues into the group’s percussion on a rumba, could be imagined as signifying a forthcoming end to isolation, and that track’s title has an unmistakable message: “No Te Rindas” translates to “Don’t give up.”   v

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