By Daniel Margolis | Published May 2022
The jacket tells the tale. On the front cover of Cuban conguero Mongo Santamaria’s album Sofrito, we see a giant bowl of the titular dish, chopped full of tomato, peppers, oranges and too many ingredients to inventory on sight, all stirred together, fresh and raw and set to pop on your tastebuds.
The back cover sees Santamaria himself ebulliently posing above said ingredients pre-prep, excited to transform them into sofrito (or have someone else do it). Then directly below that, the personnel list makes it clear why the album’s name is apt: It’s as long as the recipe. The bandleader has 17 musicians on this album’s nine tracks, playing dozens upon dozens of instruments. It’s a tribute to Santamaria, producer Marty Sheller and arranger Armen Donelian that they were able to stir this all into a seemingly effortlessly, coherent whole.
New from Craft Recordings, the record’s hype sticker tells the rest of the story. This is the “first vinyl reissue of the Afro-Latin jazz classic,” which had been out of print since 1976. The timing is perfect; the late Santamaria is fresh off his show-stopping set at the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival as captured in Questlove’s documentary Summer of Soul, which won the Oscar for Best Documentary at the 2022 Academy Awards.
Over nine tracks, it’s made clear why this was worth unearthing. Opener “Iberia” begins with the sound of the wind blowing before moving into a groove that’s well arranged and not overcrowded. Right off the bat, it speaks to Latin jazz’s nature, in which soloists jump in and out of the song, rather than politely wait out measure upon measure. On the pleasingly low-key “Cruzan,” synths float in, immediately establishing a bed for a considered saxophone solo to hand off to a ruminative electric piano solo. “Spring Song,” with its cruise-line feel, serves as an elegant showcase for Mike “Coco” DiMartino on trumpet and flugelhorn. The sublime title track starts with a stately piano solo before being taken over by the “coro,” Santamaria’s chorus of Marcelino Guerra, Marcelino Valdez and Mario Munez, who gamely throw to Gonzolo Fernandez’s flute to close the A-side.
Flipping over, “O Mi Shango” begins the B-side, appropriately, with a congo workout from Santamaria before switching up to a funk vibe and setting firmly in the pocket to showcase some call-and-response vocals. The whole thing explodes and then abruptly stops.
In contrast, “Five On The Color Side” — with its mix of sharp percussion, synths and a horn tightly aligned with Edna Holt’s vocals — floats in like a breeze before exploring a darker groove.
It should come as no surprise that things get their absolute funkiest here when the ringer, renowned drummer Bernard Purdie, shows up on “Secret Admirer.” But Santamaria, or his handlers Sheller and Donelian, smartly blow up the bridge with two bata drum players, Julito Collazo and Angel Maldonado.
“Olive Eye,” with its dance-floor feel and sparse amount of soloing, feels like a throat-clearing before “Princess,” the perfect closer. It’s a swimmingly fusion mix of electric pianos and stabbing horns, simultaneously busy and shimmering. And it fittingly takes us out with a long congo solo from Santamaria.
All in all, Sofrito is as delicious as it looks. Thank God it’s back in print — for now. DB