I had reservations at first. Any album that integrates a string section must do so with care. Are the strings the main attraction? An accent? A layer of a greater sound or something flashy that pulls away from the central musician? Most importantly, when adding strings, is this album going to get Capital S Serious? Yet one run through 26-year-old saxophonist Mario Castro's new album, Estrella de Mar, dispelled all worries. The album features his quintet, a group of string musicians, and a cadre of contributors who fully wring everything out of his compositions to marvelous effect.
Castro is a careful composer, for sure, but it's his soulful soloing that brings it all to the table. Where these songs could turn soft to plodding at any moment, it's this sense of maintaining energy that keeps it all moving. The quintet of Castro on tenor saxophone, Josh Shpak on trumpet and flugelhorn, Tamir Shmerling on bass, KyuMin Shim on piano and Jonathan Pinson on drums play these compositions well, injecting life while building Castro's ideas as needed. There's a swing in these songs that make it a Latin jazz album but there's some indescribable something else there. It's in the energy and flow, there's rarely a dull moment, but something about it that adds something more to it. Perhaps working in soloing with saxophonist Dave Liebman, or adding Casey Benjamin to put some spacey layers down, or letting Emily Elbert pontificate about the Enlightenment period with some stank on it. This album is modestly, sneakily large.
I take a simple pleasure in the perfect combination of the first two songs in an album. When the objective is to lay out work and propel an energy, it's an important thing to consider. The vibe felt in album opener "Pilares" featuring David Sanchez, ever rising and swelling, soulful and intellectual dueling solos kicking right into what may best be described as a gallop with "Shmerls" featuring Casey Benjamin and all the trippiness he lays down on vocoder. It's establishing tones and themes that show up frequently throughout the album and reveal a promise to the listener Castro is making-- these songs keep moving, and so will you.
"Shmerls" featuring Casey Benjamin
By the time the album gets to track 4, the title track with vocals from J. Hoard and Jamie Woods in part layered underneath as percussive as the beat (maintaining the ebbing and flowing galloping pace this album owns) and also getting to solo with the same rising crescendos Castro has woven throughout the album.
Estrella De Mar (featuring J. Hoard & Jaime Woods)
If anything, one may say swelling crescendos are the signature trope of the album. Perhaps this is a pattern Castro has a bent for compositionally in order to best use this string section of violinists Kailey Shaffer, Tomoko Omura, Fung Chern Hwei, Tania Mesa, viola players Allyson Clare & Anna Stromer, and cellists Brian Sanders - Cello & Ro Rowan. If so much of this masterful percussion from Jonathan Pinson (with help from Gabo Lugo and
Paulo Stagnaro on "Pilares" and "Estrella De Mar") is to gallop, one would probably suppose with these crescendos that this music is going somewhere. With each track, there is indeed a sense of arrival. It's fulfillingly strong.
"Entrapment" proves Castro can hold his own with Dave Liebman, fluttering about like leaves in the wind (with KyuMin Shim's tinkling on the piano at just the right moments). It rumbles softly. It's pretty great.
Entrapment feat. Dave Liebman
Yet by the closing songs, everything woven together with the 1-2 punch of the ballad "I Miss You" flowing sweetly into the lively "Storyteller" before ending softly with "Goodbye". The crescendos still persisting, the soulful playing ever resonant. Castro has in Estrella de Mar displayed his compositional proclivities and his ability to bob and weave and hold the listener and he gathered just the right crew of folks to pull it all off. It's an altogether outstanding album.
Nextbop @ Art of Cool editor Anthony Dean-Harris hosts the modern jazz radio show, The Line-Up, Fridays at 9pm CST on 91.7 FM KRTU San Antonio and is also a contributing writer to DownBeat Magazine. You should follow him on Twitter.