William Johnson returns with his new Latin jazz & world fusion project “Flor de Vida”, and explores the textures of jazz, world music, rock, and contemporary with percussion leading the charge. Flor de Vida is a spirit and rhythm filled album that combines the strength of Grammy award winning musicians along with several internationally accomplished musicians from all over the world.
Two years in the making between twelve different studios, Flor de Vida features a cast of versatile musicians representing two countries, four states, and several cities across North Carolina. Grammy award winning Luis Conte returns combining his strength on timbales, and vocals to such tracks as the infectious “Flor” , “Como la Flores”, and “Descarga”. Pianist Alberto Salas combines his musical strength and versatility to the project on the tracks “Flor”, “Como la Flores”, “Descarga”, and “Flor de Mi Vida”. Mark Fain, on upright bass, (perhaps best known for his work with Ricky Skaggs) lends the low end to Latin tracks “Flor”, and “Como la Flores”.
Accomplished musicians and composers such as Michael Parlett, and pianist Hans Zerhmuelan (England, Los Angeles) produced the flowery and playful tune “Descubrimiento/Discovery” from the Los Angeles based studio/production company Talented Productions. “Discovery” is a character filled and meant to bring to life the season of discovery in childhood. Lou Santiago Jr. (drummer for worship artist Jeff Deyo, and many other accomplished artists such as Natalie Grant, Seventh Day Slumber, etc.) plays drums on both “Mi Pasíon”, and “Flor de Mi Vida”. Los Angeles based drummer Daniel Wiley also plays drums on “Descarga”.
Also on the project “Flor de Vida” are Belfast, Ireland based flutist Raymond Robinson (flutist for worship artist Robin Mark) played flute, and strings on Heaven’s Rainforest; a song about the beautiful complexities and contrasts of life. Kyle Johnson, and Alex Anders (engineer for hit television series “Glee”) also played on “Heaven’s Rainforest” on the electric and acoustic guitar. Kyle Johnson also plays electric guitar with Berklee graduate Timmie Raynor (fretless bass) on “Mi Pasíon” (My Passion). Vocalist Lasherrie Droughon and Melissa Mayle bring their vocal prowess to song “Como la Flores” and “Talitha Cumi”, and “Flor de Mi Vida”.
Below is a review by music journalist Alex Henderson.
Afro-Cuban jazz is something that one tends to associate with the East Coast more than the West Coast. Ray Barretto, Tito Puente, Sr., Mongo Santamaria, Machito, Chano Pozo, Mario Bauza and Dizzy Gillespie were important figures in Afro-Cuban jazz, and all of them had a strong New York City connection (even the ones who didn’t actually grow up there). But the West Coast has also offered some quality Afro-Cuban jazz if one knows where to look. Percussionist/bandleader Poncho Sanchez is a life-long resident of Los Angeles; the late vibist Cal Tjader had a strong presence in the Bay Area. So no, Afro-Cuban jazz doesn’t have to come from the East Coast. Percussionist/composer William Johnson, in fact, grew up in Southern California (although he was born in Illinois) and provides mostly Afro-Cuban jazz and salsa on Flor de Vida, which he self-released on his own label, Cedros Records (Cedros is a side street that runs through Panorama City and Van Nuys in L.A.’s San Fernando Valley and is only a few blocks from Van Nuys Boulevard). Williams isn’t strictly a Latin jazz or salsa musician; his interests range from Christian music to traditional Indian music. But Latin jazz is his orientation on Flor de Vida (which means “Flower of Life” in Spanish).
Many of the selections on this 43-minute CD are post-bop instrumentals with a strong Afro-Cuban flavor, including “Descubrimento (Discovery),” “Flor,” “Descarga” and “Rise (Talitha Cumi).” But salsa with vocals is what Johnson favors on “Flor de Mi Vida” (“Flower of My Life”) and the infectious “Como las Flores” (“Like the Flowers”). Johnson doesn’t actually sing on either of those tunes; Melissa Mayle is the vocalist on “Flor de Mi Vida,” while Luis Conte and Lasherrrie Droughon handle the singing on “Como las Flores.” But Johnson wrote both songs and plays percussion on both of them.
Johnson plays a variety of Afro-Cuban percussion on this album, including congas and timbales. And on “Flor de Mi Vida,” one of the instruments he plays is the djembe (a traditional drum from West Africa). The djembe, like Latin congas, timbales and bongos, is meant to be played with one’s hands rather than with sticks.
The instrumental “Mi Pasíon” (“My Passion”) features Kyle Johnson on electric guitar and takes the album into jazz-rock fusion territory, while the haunting “Dad’s Song” is a two-minute instrumental that features Johnson on Native American flute. “Dad’s Song” isn’t Afro-Cuban jazz or salsa at all; it’s Native American music. And yet, it doesn’t sound or feel out of place on what is primarily an Afro-Cuban jazz/salsa album. Johnson is obviously a musician with eclectic tastes; so it stands to reason that he would want to add some variety to this 2011 release. Flor de Vida is fairly unpredictable, and that is a good thing.
Johnson also plays guitar on the congenial “Heaven’s Rainforest,” only this time, he plays acoustic guitar instead of electric guitar. And while “Mi Pasíon” is fusion, “Heaven’s Rainforest” is the only thing on this album that could be described as smooth jazz, pop-jazz or crossover jazz. But unlike so many of the instrumentals that one hears on so-called “smooth jazz” or “new adult contemporary (NAC)” radio stations in the United States, “Heaven’s Rainforest” is not elevator music or mindless fluff for the sake of mindless fluff. “Smooth jazz” stations are infamous for playing a lot of dull, insincere music that has a very saccharine quality; “Heaven’s Rainforest,” however, is sweet without being saccharine or artificial. It’s light but not lightweight. Let’s say that “Heaven’s Rainforest” is “smooth jazz with a difference.”