by Shaun Brady of Jazz Times

In his landmark 1983 book Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy, historian Robert Farris Thompson traces the aesthetic and spiritual influence that African traditions have had throughout the New World diaspora. Bassist Santi Debriano discovered the book while studying at Wesleyan University in the early 1990s, on the recommendation of frequent collaborator Jerry González.

“I was surprised because it wasn’t really a book about music,” Debriano recalled recently, on the phone from his home in Staten Island. “It was a book about art. But what it was trying to say was that African people kept some of their ideas about spirituality and imagery even when they came across in the Middle Passage and expressed them here in the Americas. Then those same ideas were handed down almost imperceptibly from generation to generation as the slaves became former slaves and moved from African religions to Christianity. I found it fascinating.”

Those connections, along with his graduate studies in ethnomusicology, would have a profound impact on the music Debriano, 65, made from that point forward. In 1997 he recorded the Latin-tinged Panamaniacs with saxophonist David Sánchez (the band was also founded with pianist Danilo Pérez), followed two years later by the acclaimed Circlechant, for which he enlisted Brazilian musicians like pianist Helio Alves and drummer Horacio “El Negro” Hernández. His latest release, Flash of the Spirit, pays explicit homage to Thompson’s book on a wide-ranging set of tunes that weave together the varied strands of the bassist’s own eclectic career.

The global music traditions that Debriano delved into during his years at Wesleyan emerge throughout the album, from the Middle Eastern-inflected melody of “Funky New Dorp” to the Brazilian folk sound of the lullaby-like “Toujours Petits,” to the songo rhythms that Cuban-born drummer Francisco Mela applies to Kenny Barron’s “Voyage.” But the album also features the muscular hard bop of opener “Awesome Blues,” an entrancing take on the Kenny Dorham ballad “La Mesha,” and an excursion into freer territory via Ornette Coleman’s “Humpty Dumpty.”

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