Every now and then someone coins a new word and I think it deserves to spread. I’d like to introduce you to the wonderfully descriptive term “slatin”, which comes courtesy of virtuoso percussionist João Bosco de Oliveira.
Bosco will sometimes tell a little tale about one particular gig when he’d only recently arrived from Brasil in the ’80s and started scuffling around in London. The sax player called the next tune and Bosco asked him: “what style do you want?” The leader exchanged a few casual shrugs and blank looks with the bassist and drummer, then replied: “well … s’Latin innit.” A pejorative was born.
slat·in (slt’n) n
A crude, lazy way of approximating musical styles from Latin America and the Caribbean employed by jazz musicians who don’t know any better (cf. slut, slattern, sloppy).
BLAME IT ON THE BOSSA
Now I really do love the sound of the late ’50s and ‘60s Gilberto and Jobim stuff, which became known as “bossa nova” (the name means something like “new vibe”). Bossa was designed as an urbane amalgam of samba elements and cool jazz. It was a fusion of styles (or perhaps approaches), but one that certainly worked.
An earlier example of successful fusion was how Dizzy Gillespie developed what he’d learned working with the great Cuban mambo bands of the ‘40s and ‘50s. Some of his recordings with Chano Pozzo, James Moody and Mike Longo are fantastic – but they all really knew what they were doing.
Unfortunately, the success of the bossa craze led to the general assumption among jazzers that you can just straighten out the eighth notes and hey presto, you’re playing “Latin” music. This is like using a Château Mouton Rothschild Pauillac 1986 to make sangria. Incidentally, bossa originally fundamentally emphasised a delicacy of sound – nowadays, bossas sadly tend to be a bit “hammered out”.
The point I’m getting to is that there are more different distinct styles of samba than you can shake a shaker at (there are also styles of music from Brasil that aren’t samba). The pulses and rhythms, the instrumentation, the patterns, the basslines, the phrasing and harmonies are all distinctly different. The same is true of the multitude of styles that come from Cuba, Hispaniola, Mexico, Colombia, Venezuela and so forth. (Lo siento, if I’ve left you out.)
The lack of understanding doesn’t just apply to amateurs. I once declined an invitation to review a major album release because, like most jazz journalists, I worked on the principle that if you haven’t got anything good to say, don’t say anything. (Jazz journalists are very protective of their minority interest and will very rarely call something crap, even if it is.) The soloist on this recording, for all his Grammy-winning jazz playing, plainly didn’t have a clue what was going on with the top-notch Cuban rhythm section behind him. Nor was it fusion, more like a failed attempt at emulsion, like a cup of coffee made with milk that’s turned.
(I seem to have got over my earlier principled stance of being nice about things – I’m older and more bitter, but hey, at least I didn’t name names.)
And getting it right isn’t necessarily a birthright – I’ve heard some great music in Cuba, but I’m afraid I’ve also heard some absolute rubbish… And there are just as many people who own a guitar but not a clue from Rio as from Rotherham.
Anyway, today jazz pianists will often play arpeggiated pseudo-montuno figures on a bossa tune (while there are styles of samba and fusion where this is done, it’s usually more appropriate to play rhythmic strums, imitating a guitar, or gentle accompanying filigree). Drummers will play a samba baion pattern over a mambo. Bassists will play a samba bassline under a cumbia. Singers and horn players will pick up a percussion instrument and play the wrong clave, the wrong way round, starting on the wrong beat (and three wrongs don’t make a right).
Sometimes the fusion of styles is deliberate and sounds good – but only when the players know what they’re doing. Regrettably, a lot of jazz players just don’t know the difference between a mambo, a samba and Amber the jumbo bimbo doing the limbo at Chrimbo to Chumbawamba. They play “slatin”.
Am I being too uptight about this stuff? Well maybe, but believe me if you know how the music is supposed to sound, hearing it done wrong can be like fingernails down a blackboard.
So please put a bit of time and love into appreciating these fantastic and fascinating musical styles. If you’re going to play fusion, all well and good, but learn a bit about what exactly it is you’re fusing together.