Modern musicians living in New York City -- those with their antennae up and with the open-mindedness to soak in their musical surroundings -- are invariably the beneficiaries of what the city’s former mayor David Dinkins once referred to as “a gorgeous mosaic.”
Rather than depicting the city as a melting pot, in which myriad cultures blend into one homogenized mass of assimilation, Dinkins talked about the beauty of keeping rich cultures together, side by side, in his Inaugural Address of 1990. And so, it is possible, in walking through different neighborhoods in the boroughs of NYC, each with its own distinctive character, to experience Puerto Rican plena and bomba, Dominican merengue and bachata, Colombian cumbia, Peruvian festejo and landó and various other rhythms from the African diaspora in their pure form. And for eager musicians like Greg Diamond, those sounds and rhythms are bound to seep in.
A self-described ‘hybrid musician,’ guitarist-composer Diamond grew up in Queens, and later in a suburb of New York City, with a rich musical heritage in his own household, before he began experiencing the cornucopia of sounds the city had to offer. “I’m half Eastern European Jewish and half Colombian. My father’s a New Yorker, born and raised. He was an opera singer who studied classical piano at Juilliard, so I was listening to that music growing up. And my mother is Colombian, so I definitely grew up with that component as well.”
Spending two years in Colombia after graduating from high school was a kind of roots journey that led him deeper into his appreciation of Latin music. “When I moved back to the city in ’99, my main focus was jazz, learning the tradition,” Diamond explains. “Yet at the same time my interest in Latin music in its various forms continued further.”
From 2002-2013, when he lived near the intersection of Graham Avenue (aka Avenue of Puerto Rico) and Broadway in Brooklyn, Diamond would soak up the sounds of Hector Lavoe and Willie Colón blasting out of cars, apartment windows and porches in the neighborhood. “I got a good amount of inspiration living in that neighborhood, but more importantly, it represents a period of important growth,” he says.
Today Diamond is a quintessential product of New York City’s gorgeous mosaic, and Avenida Graham is a reflection of all his varied influences that have come together organically in his music. “I devote a lot of time studying the great masters but I also try to nourish another need to listen to other kinds of genres. I try not to limit myself to one part of the spectrum. Music is a universal language and we live in a rapidly globalizing and pluralistic society – I believe that a lot of music coming out today is a reflection of that.”
The collection kicks off with the churning, odd-metered groover Synesthesia which is fueled by Cole’s polyrhythmic pulse and Herrera’s percolating percussion. Dillard, on soprano sax, engages in some tight unisons with Diamond on the head, and as the piece opens up each contributes free-flowing solos that uplift the proceedings. Cole is also turned loose over a long tag at the end, bringing this opener to an exhilarating conclusion.
Rastros (“Traces”) opens on a tender note with Diamond’s fingerpicked arpeggios against Blake’s melancholy tenor tones. As the piece develops, it reveals a subtle tango flavor and gradually builds in intensity with Blake playing passionately over the top while Cole underscores with dramatic fills. Diamond’s solo here is elegant and introspective. “That’s one of my favorite tunes on the record,” says Diamond. “The harmonic progression is based on an étude that I wrote for guitar. The melody is very simple but there’s a flow to it that I like, and the mood of the piece is very somber and meditative.” He explains this track’s title: “‘Traces’ is about posterity. It also signals the importance of endeavoring to create music that is transcendent and timeless, in the face of a rapidly changing world that is becoming increasingly chaotic and ephemeral.”
El Coronel is a buoyant piece that incorporates an infectious son montuno jam in the middle section. Blake and Diamond have some lively exchanges and Cole erupts on his kit at the tag. “It’s an homage to a character from Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude,” explains Diamond. “It was one of the more challenging pieces for me to write and record. But in essence, I think the song itself, and many of my compositions for that matter, is all about creating a singable melody that can be seamlessly interwoven into a framework that can be both rhythmically and harmonically complex.”
Diamond plays fingerstyle archtop on the solo intro to the tender A Hint of Jasmin for more acoustic effect. This moving piece is also a brilliant showcase for Dillard’s expressive tenor playing. Gentrix, a rhythmically deceptive piece in five, incorporates lots of tricky subdivisions as the tune progresses. The presence of Herrera’s conga here also gives it a kind of Afro-Caribbean feel. Laia, on the other hand, is full of complexity as it opens with a rubato intro before leaping through different tempo changes and meter changes over the course of 8:26. Dillard soars on soprano here while Diamond contributes another remarkably fluid solo, spurred on by Cole’s scintillating and interactive pulse.
Ultima Palabra is a contemplative, graceful number that incorporates an alluring Argentine milonga rhythm. Eckroth contributes a particularly moving piano solo on this thoughtful number. Cascade is a lively, affecting piece that shows Diamond’s fondness for melody as a composer and also showcases Dillard’s outstanding soprano sax work.
The collection closes with Diamond’s most ambitious work, Motion Suite, a kind of sequel to his “Inertia” (from Conduit). “It took roughly two years to complete,” he explains. “This one has more complexity than ‘Inertia’ in terms of tempo changes and changes in meter. I suppose that there’s a lot going on here, I’m just really happy that we could make it all come to life in the studio.”
Indeed, there’s a lot going on throughout Avenida Graham, an auspicious and richly appointed outing from this promising talent on the New York scene. -- Bill Milkowski
Produced by Greg Diamond. Recorded: May 27th 2015 at Sear Sound Studios – New York, NY. Chief Engineer: Chris Allen. Assistant Engineer: Grant Valentine. Mixed by James Farber at Shelter Island Studios – New York, NY – assisted by Wyatt Offit. Mastered by Dave Darlington at Bass Hit Recording. Graphic concept and package design by: Jack Frisch. Executive Producer: Joachim “Jochen” Becker.
1. Synesthesia 6:13
2. Cole’s Addendum 1:47
3. Rastros 6:38
4. El Coronel 7:23
5. Hint of Jasmin 7:43
6. Gentrix 7:28
7. Laia 8:25
8. Cascade 6:38
9. Motion Suite 8:32
GREG DIAMOND Guitar
STACY DILLARD Tenor and Soprano Saxophone (1,4-6,8,9)
SEAMUS BLAKE Tenor Saxophone (2,3)
MIKE ECKROTH Piano
PETER SLAVOV Bass
HENRY COLE Drums
MAURICIO HERRERA Congas & Percussion (1,3,5,9)