Widely considered one of the best Brazilian composers of the 20th century, saxophonist Moacir Santos nonetheless saw few paper returns from the three albums he recorded for Blue Note in the 1970s. They were under-promoted and never reached a definite market; according to local pianist and former Santos collaborator Mark Levine, Blue Note ultimately lost the masters. It wasn't until shortly before his death in 2006 that Santos recorded two albums that garnered popular and critical recognition. Nonetheless, he remains indelibly etched in Brazil's music history. Santos' tunes are characterized by extravagant but immediately catchy rhythms and lean, singable melodies. They provide terrific material for a small combo with a tight percussion section. For Mark Levine and the Latin Tinge — a quintet featuring woodwinds expert Mary Fettig, percussionist Michael Spiro, drummer Paul van Wageningen, bassist John Wiitala, and Levine on piano — Santos' oeuvre is a perfect fit.
Levine gigged with Santos in the 1960s and played on the saxophonist's 1974 Blue Note record Saudade. Thus, the pianist shows a real understanding of Santos' music in Off & On, the new tribute he recorded with Latin Tinge over a two-day period in April. But for the popular opening tune "Naña," most of the tunes are rather obscure and apparently arranged the same way Santos originally played them. A mix of bossa novas and sambas, the songs usually require Spiro and Wageningen to play two completely autonomous rhythms in tandem, which makes for a busy percussion system. Levine anchors the band with careful, elegant comping, which sounds most imaginative on "Suk-Cha" — probably the best tune on the album. But the real sell here is Fettig, who can switch from bass clarinet to flute in the chorus of a single song, and manhandle both instruments. A lot of people would buy the album for that alone. (Left Coast Clave)
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