The John Santos Sextet, “The Art of the Descarga”

It’s unfortunate that, for many Canadians, a knowledge of Afro-Latin jazz begins with Tito Puente and ends with the Buena Vista Social Club. Good (and ubiquitous) as they were, they comprise little more than a passing glance through a keyhole at an expansive musical tradition.

Where those acts leave off, this album digs in. Descarga is music improvised over Cuban themes, bringing in the sounds and rhythms of the region to the sensibility and showmanship of jazz. Based in his home-town of San Francisco, John Santos is at the very top of his game both as a musician and an ambassador for the genre—he has appointments to the faculties of Berkeley’s California Jazz Conservatory and San Francisco State University—as are all the musicians assembled here. The sextet includes Orestes Vilató, Jerry González, Orlando “Maraca” Valle, Tito Matos, Juan “Juango” Gutiérrez. Their performances are precise, exquisitely tasteful, sophisticated and exhilarating. True to Santos’ work as an educator, there is more here than meets the untrained ear, as the detailed liner notes attest. But, for the joy that the music brings, all you need to do is put it on and give yourself over to it. And you absolutely should.