Jazz in Mexico today: a beginner's guide

Filulas Juz

Patrick McMahon offers a guide to the thriving jazz scene in Mexico, including a list of artists to listen out for. You can enjoy most of these tracks in our Apple Music playlist 'Mexican jazz today'

When thinking about jazz from Latin America, how often is it that Westerners will think of Mexico? In fact, the country sends a steady stream of talented musicians to the prestigious US music colleges and has produced a number of internationally successful players. Two immediate examples are Antonio Sánchez, who regularly plays drums for Pat Metheny and composed the acclaimed soundtrack for Birdman (2014), and Tino Contreras, who has been touring and recording around the world since the 1960s.

The capital Mexico City is fostering an active jazz scene that is increasingly popular and exciting, which, as one of Latin America's most important cities, benefits from hosting many international musicians both passing through and settling permanently. Venues such as Zinco Jazz Club, Parker & Lenox and Casa Franca ensure there are numerous options for seeing jazz pretty much every day of the week in the city. Having seen so much great jazz here, I have put together a playlist of 10 pieces for Jazzwise readers that shows off some of the interesting music groups currently based in Mexico, which range from straight-ahead jazz quartets to marimba ensembles and modern electronic jazz groups.

Filulas Juz – 'V.R.H.'

Probably one of the most exciting and original jazz groups in Mexico at the moment, Filulas Juz combine together an eclectic range of modern timbres, grooves and even sound objects in their music. The result is a unique sound that evades categorisation with just one genre label. 'V.R.H.' is from their most recent album 3773, a carefully crafted collection that smoothly flows between each singular piece through intricately produced interludes. The group come from Querétaro, a city not far from the capital in the centre of the country, and they are gradually building up a following of fans who are intrigued by the group's inventive compositions and captivating live performances.

Héctor Infanzón – 'La Chipita'

One of Mexico's highly renowned jazz pianists, Héctor Infanzón has enjoyed a successful international career as a composer and performer. Currently based in his home town Mexico City, Infanzón studied at Berklee College of Music in 1985 and has shared the stage with such jazz greats as Wynton Marsalis. His album Citadino (2007) features the piece 'La Chipita', which is based around a pulsating afro-Carribean groove that makes a great base for Infanzón's solos. The album is filled with interesting tunes centred around these syncopated Latin-Caribbean feels, and neatly exhibits Infanzón's tight arranging skills and his virtuosic playing.

Diego Franco Quartet - 'No Tiemblo, Vibro'

Diego Franco is a young and promising saxophonist and composer who is already renowned on the jazz circuit in Mexico City. Born to a musical family, Franco originally trained in the country's second city Guadalajara before moving to the capital in search of more opportunities to perform and develop. His quartet have formed a really fresh sound where straight-ahead grooves suddenly morph into hip hop beats and warm ballads pick up into energetic Latin feels. A great example of this is his piece 'No Tiemblo, Vibro', which translates as "I Do Not Tremble, I Vibrate", where after nearly six minutes of energetic racing the quartet slip back into a slick groove that is well worth the wait.

Le Monqué Spazzuah - 'Cherry Trees'

If you have been wondering what a group that describes itself as 'panic nu-jazz' sounds like, then look no further. La Monqué Spazzuah come from Toluca, the capital of Estado de México, and have been popping over the state border to unleash their music on Mexico City jazz clubs for the last several years. Although they move between all kinds of different feels and grooves, the tracks which really stand out are those that ferociously jolt through uneven time signatures, such as 'Cherry Tree' from the album T3RC3R MUNDO (2015). Largely based around a 5/8 rhythm, Le Monqué Spazzuah perform this piece with a relentless intensity that demands the listeners attention, ringing true with the band's bold self-labelled genre.

Tambuco - 'El Devenir de la Noche'

There is not exactly a surplus of pieces written by jazz composers for percussion quartets, but after hearing 'El Devenir de la Noche' you might start to wonder why it is not done more often. Tambuco are a GRAMMY nominated percussion ensemble from Mexico who have performed and recorded with such acclaimed groups as Kronos Quartet and The Michael Nyman Band. Héctor Infanzón wrote the piece 'El Devenir de la Noche' especially for this group, which was released on an eponymous album that included compositions for seven other ensembles. Tambuco's performance stands out as the most intriguing on the album because of its unusual instrumentation of four marimbas, which blend seamlessly in and out of one another as they hammer out Infanzón's fast interlocking rhythms and colourful harmonic changes.

Xuc Trio - 'Little Tikes'

Xuc Trio (pronounced 'suc') formed a few years ago in Mexico City, and have developed their own distinct sound that delicately balances between being technical and accessible. Led by guitarist Juanjo Gómez, the trio pools together some great musical talent from the city, who are inventive with the limitations presented by playing a mixture of funk, groove, jazz and rock with just three musicians. Their album Semillas de Copinol confidently crosses through lots of different genres without the listener ever forgetting who is playing, and also captures the exceptional communication between the players that is so evident when seen live.

Xinto - 'Tricoma Son'

Son jarocho is the folk music of Veracruz, one of Mexico's states that sits along the Gulf of Mexico. Xinto is a project that aims to place this traditional style within a jazz context to give it a new edge. Folk melodies are superimposed over odd time signatures and extensive solos are given to instruments like the jarocho requinto, resulting in a unique type of jazz that is saturated in Mexican identity. Different players are invited to each concert, and occasionally the third wall is broken by asking audience members to come up sing their favourite son jarocho tunes, making each of their performances a fresh experience.

Alex Mercado Trio ft. Scott Colley & Antonio Sánchez - 'Wise'

Alex Mercado has attained a tremendous reputation in the Mexican jazz scene for his impeccable technique and inventive soloing, making him one of Mexico City's jazz giants. Another Berklee trained musician, Mercado began playing on cruise ships and teaching music before establishing his international career. He can now be found on the lineup of such prestigious festivals as North Sea Jazz, although is still a regular on the Mexican jazz circuit too. 'Wise' was released on his album Symbiosis (2014) and features the renowned players Scott Colley and Antonio Sánchez as its rhythm section. Opening with a growling bass riff in 5/4, 'Wise' is a great demonstration of Mercado's remarkable creative talent and improvisation skill, which soars as the piece develops.

La Orquesta Vulgar – 'Mambo 38'

Although this lively group of young musicians have not been playing for long, La Orquesta Vulgar have already built up a strong following in Mexico City and a reputation for putting on a good show. Its members are alumni from various music schools in Mexico City, who combine all their different tastes and musical interests together to form their energetic jazz-influenced music. The spirited playing by the group's drummer, Luis Flores, is a real highlight of their shows, as can be seen in their live performance of 'Mambo 38' for Cicuta Records.

Vladimir Alfonseca Trio - 'Modí'

You know that you are listening to Vladimir Alfonseca as soon as you hear his incredibly soft, warm tone enter. Some of his other pieces use a nylon-stringed classical guitar, and it is not hard to hear how his electric tone is a subtle imitation of that soft classical timbre. Having initially studied at Escuela Superior de Música, Alfonseca went on to further study composition and arrangement, and is now a regular performer in Mexico City. His piece 'Modi' sees his mellow timbre placed into an intricate, complex arrangement that sweeps in and out of different metres and time signatures, resulting in a unique sounding piece that is both driven and delicate.

Patrick McMahon completed his bachelor's degree in music at the University of Sheffield in 2016, and since August 2017 he has been living in Mexico City. As well as researching some of the traditional styles of music from Mexico, Patrick has been playing with local musicians and scoping out the best jazz that's being made there.

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