The Puppeteers is an all-star fresh-jazz quartet with its world on a string. By "all-star" I mean that vibist Bill Ware, pianist Arturo O'Farrill, bassist Alex Blake and drummer Jaime Affoumado are each leaders of their own projects, and profound characters in their own rights.
By "fresh-jazz" I mean the music sounds like it just happened – not as "look-at-the-past" but as "here's-what-we-play-now." The quartet, as these gents comprise it, is one solid entity. The world – well, that's you, and everyone listening. I use "on a string" to imply that the Puppeteers should carry on without undue exertion, because playing music as colorful and energetic, as coherent and full of camaraderie as this set of nine original songs, is an end itself. Besides, their eponymous album is a project that will earn accolades while generating fans and gigs in its wake.
Making a splash should be easy for this band, because the Puppeteers aims to be and is fun. Whether onstage or in the studio, its members clearly have a ball. Perhaps the term "star" deserves substantiation; however, it suits each Puppeteer precisely.
Bill Ware toured with Steely Dan (when the duo of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker took to the road, supported also by Chris Potter, Warren Bernhardt and Peter Erskine), launched the jazz/hip-hop Groove Collective and was a founding member of the Jazz Passengers, effervescent stalwarts of the good ol' East Village, as well as leader of his own small groups. Arturo O'Farrill is best known for sustaining his epic, Grammy-winning Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra and smaller combos, often featuring his sons -- but his credits include stints with artists including Dizzy Gillespie, Carla Bley and the Fort Apache band. Steeped in the Latin legacy, his own sensibility is that of a New Yorker, crossing all borders.
Alex Blake, originally from Panama, brings unique intensity and physicality to his chosen instrument – just as he has while securing the bottom line for pianist Randy Weston over the past 15 years, to name only one of his long associations. Blake's tenure with Manhattan Transfer has been equally long and fruitful, as has been his time with figures as different as Sun Ra and Stan Getz. Jaime Affoumado is one of those rare people who've done it all – been a child actor on Broadway and in movies, a professional skateboarder, a kung-fu instructor, a street musician, frontman of a trio, and oh, yes: In 2005 he opened and through 2011 operated a Brooklyn club called Puppets Jazz Bar where these four first came together.
"Puppets was a home for musicians," Affoumado says simply. "It was a sweet thing to do a jazz hit there," Ware asserts. "It was a place where I could stretch," O'Farrill agrees. "I incubated a lot of my ideas and projects there." The New York club scene may be criticized as not "player-friendly" but Jaime, who did everything from financing to booking to managing Puppets in two locations of Park Slope himself, welcomed a coterie of musicians as regulars. Among them were Ware, O'Farrill and Blake, who worked (often also with trumpeter Jim Seeley) with each other in diverse combinations. Doing so, they learned to listen, developing an ability to complement that's a hallmark of their band.
"If you listen to the other guy, you're going to play right," Ware says. "You're not just listening to yourself. You develop a feeling of mutuality, the chemistry that even in all-star groups is so hard to find."
You'll find it here. If you like fast, propulsive, tuneful, dramatic playing, very together, of vibes, piano, throbbing bass and driving drums, this band's debut recording is the right sound for right now. If you admire collective creativity, the subtleties of swing, the fulfillment of form and expression of moods that remind you what it is to feel, those are further joys in the Puppeteers' music. Abstract thought grounded in the grit of the blues and the syncopations of Afro-Caribbean rhythms; a pretty ballad dancing gracefully across metal bars and ivory keys; sinew and pivotal balance in the foundations provided by focused bassist Blake and fiery drummer Affoumado; a band so deft it's dangerous – generating layers of activity that seem boundless, yet remain all audibly distinct while adding up to a infectious blend. Those elements define the Puppeteers.
Of their tunes: Bill wrote "Bio Diesel," which has a dark, motor-driven line; "Lonely Days Are Gone" (based on the chord progression of "The Letter," a top 40 hit in 1967 for The Box Tops with singer Alex Chilton), and "The Right Time," which Arturo mentions is "demanding, tricky – very clavé aware in a strange and sophisticated manner." Arturo himself brought to the band "In Whom," penned for his son Zachary ("a great drummer, an old soul, one of the gentlest and sweetest beings I've met"), and "Not Now Right Now," a composition by trombonist Papo Vazquez (leader of an Afro Puerto Rican septet the Mighty Pirates Troubadors, Vazquez is also a former member of O'Farrill's Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra).
Alex Blake is responsible for "On the Spot," which he first recorded on his album Now's the Time, live from the Knitting Factory in 1999; "Jumping," his most recent composition, and "Peaceful Moments," which he recalls coming to him while he sat under a tree gazing upon beautiful upstate New York farm land during a break from a recording session in 2005. "Dreams of Dad" is Jaime Affoumado's tune, dedicated of course to his father Ralph, Choir Master at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York Universtiy and composer whose opus includes commercials, music theater scores, arrangements for choral groups and pop hits and a "World Peace Cantata."
The close weave of the performances here, however, make it impossible to identify any one of these pieces only with one of their progenitors. Like the best known and most beloved band with similar instrumentation in American music history, the Modern Jazz Quartet, the sum of talents Affoumado, Blake, O'Farrill and Ware bring to their collaboration is more gratifying than even the superb quality of the ingredients. In the Puppeteers, all hands know what their counterparts are doing. The music they make is their show. No curtain hides their magic; we listeners can hear and revel in their synchronization. And the whole program is delightful -- thanks to the Puppeteers. – Howard Mandel
Howard Mandel is the author of Future Jazz and Miles Ornette Cecil – Jazz Beyond Jazz, a blogger at ArtsJournal.com/JazzBeyondJazz, a reporter for National Public Radio and president of the Jazz Journalists Association.