You don't need Latin blood flowing through your veins to play Latin jazz well, as many mainstream players have shown through the years. Late trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie was the best known early example as a musical explorer who put an Afro-Cuban stamp on his music in the 1940s.
Pianist Mark Levine has been performing this exotic and rhythmically challenging hybrid since the 1960s as a member of many established Latin bands, including units led by Willie Bobo, Mongo Santamaria, Cal Tjader, Pete Escovedo and Poncho Sanchez.
Over the past three years, Levine has helped strengthen that tradition with his own fine quartet, The Latin Tinge, which released this fall an excellent new recording called "Serengeti." It was self-produced on Levine's own Left Coast Clave label and built on the musical success of his 2000 session "Hey, It's Me."
Many Latin jazz bands go for a robust, big band feel with three or more percussionists and a horn section. Levine prefers a much smaller unit. The quartet, with Michael Spiro on percussion, bassist Peter Barshay and drummer Paul Van Wageningen, enables him to illuminate the melody and the splendid rhythms in a more intimate, but no less vibrant way.
He revels in putting a Latin twist on established mainstream jazz tunes and showcasing them alongside traditional Cuban or Brazilian gems. On this recording, his choices included Wayne Shorter's "Angola," Joe Henderson's "Inner Urge" and "A Shade of Jade," Stanley Turrentine's soul jazz classic "Sugar," and even the Harry Warren American Songbook classic "You're My Everything."
Clave, a two-bar rhythmic pattern that features three notes in one bar and two notes in the other, is the glue that holds the whole thing together, as Levine explains it.
"So much in the jazz repertoire falls into clave," he says. "Instead of Latinifying 'Caravan' and 'Night in Tunisia,' which have been done hundreds of times already. A lot of tunes by Wayne Shorter, Joe Henderson and Woody Shaw, for example, fall into clave very naturally. Wallace Roney's songs fall in as natural as Thelonious Monk's do.
"To play a jazz tune, you have to place it in the right clave. It opens up all different corners of the music for exploration and individuality," Levine says.
Levine, 62, has called San Francisco home for many years. But he grew up on the East Coast and began playing jazz as a teenager in Florida. He attended college at Boston University, and took advantage of the proximity of the Berklee College of Music to study with some of the jazz masters who were teaching there.
He soon was in New York working with Houston Person, Henderson, Mongo Santamaria and the guitarist Gabor Szabo. Early West Coast collaborations included work in the bands of Henderson, Shaw, Blue Mitchell and Harold Land.
"These were tremendous learning experiences," Levine said. "I worked off and on with Joe Henderson for about 20 years. And I learned a lot about lyricism from Blue Mitchell in the late '70s."
Like much in his career, he says the Latin connection came from being in the right places at the right times.
"When I was living in New York, my best friend at the time was (alto saxophonist) Bobby Porcelli. We hung out a lot. Took me to the Palladium a lot. One night, I heard Eddie Palmieri and said 'Wow. What's this stuff?' I soon moved back to Boston, where there was one Latin band, led by saxophonist Dick Meza. The pianist quit and they recruited me."
Levine worked steadily in mainstream and Latin contexts through the early 1980s. During three years with vibes player Cal Tjader, he made five recordings including the Grammy winning "La Onda Va Bien."
He was also on Santamaria's 1969 recording "Afro-American Latin," which was recorded in 1969, but not released until 2000 by Columbia. That session captured the vibrancy of the New York Latin jazz scene of the day.
In the early 1980s, Levine put his Latin side interest on hold to concentrate on mainstream projects. "But a trip to Cuba in the mid-1990s rekindled everything," he said.
"I heard what was going on there, which was much different than what we were hearing in the U.S. We were not hearing much timba in the U.S. It appealed to me," Levine said. "I saw some possibilities, figured out how to use montunos in what I do. Then I came back here and started a new band."
Levine said he gets a different sort of satisfaction from playing his hybrid of Latin and jazz.
"I get to do two things I love at the same time," he said, flowing right into a food analogy. I love apple pie and I love ice cream. So why not put the ice cream on top of the apple pie? The more I do it, the easier it gets to combine them."
He said he intends to take The Latin Tinge back into the studio next May for another project in its evolution. It might include putting that tinge on some West African pop music and music written by Nguyen Le, a Vietnamese guitarist living in Paris.
"I listen to as much as I can," Levine said. "There is a whole bunch of stuff coming out of Paris and out of Africa that is quite interesting and exceptional. But you really have to search for the records, because not much of it gets into the United States."