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La Clave - La Clave

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Artist: La Clave

Album: La Clave

Label: Dusty Groove

Review date: Sep. 4, 2007

Originally released in 1973, now reissued by Dusty Groove America, La Clave's sole, eponymous album is largely a mystery. The newly amended liner notes - "session details for the record are extremely vague" - do little to clear things up, but a few listens make a few things pretty clear. First of all, it would be hard to refute the argument that this album got made because of the success that groups like Santana, and, to a lesser extent, Malo, were experiencing, which, in addition to the fact that post-Woodstock hippies grooved then as they do now to percussion instruments (of which drum circles are an unfortunate result), were due to the rise in Chicano activism and cultural awareness. You know those vans with Boris Vallejo-esque airbrush fantasy scenes that instead of a naked viking broad riding a polar bear, it's a scantily clad Latina being sacrficed to Quetzlcoatl?

In the early '70s, this type of music was the soundtrack to those impromptu art openings on the boulevards of San Francisco and L.A. Thick, wah-driven guitar bombast, screaming lead guitar from one channel, driving cowbell, congas and a tight brass section are omnipresent throughout. A few tracks display impressive breakbeat prescience that was, at the time, the domain of better known soul maestros like Curtis Mayfield, Isaac Hayes and Donny Hathaway. The band even offers a Latin-tinged cover of the latter's "The Ghetto." On other tracks, the band works its Latin side much harder, almost to the point of schizophrenia, pulling off the driving tumbao that was at the time becoming emblematic of New York's Nuyorican salsa renaissance. When the two hands meet, La Clave's tight ensemble sound picks up where Willie Bobo left off after seamlessly fusing guajira with rhythm and blues in the '60s, and in the areas where the soul takes over again, the group retains its Latin edge without surrendering to the gimmickry that has perhaps rendered some of War's work a bit of a novelty.

The presence of Lalo Schifrin, rumored to be the arranger on most tracks and credited with two songs on the album, apparently may be the reason behind the Ray Coniff-like choral dusting that graces every other track, and it follows that Schifrin may have been the one to suggest the oddly anachronistic touch of adding lyrics to a version of "Soul Sauce," the Dizzy Gillespie composition that solidified Cal Tjader's place at the forefront of Latin jazz. Schifrin's most interesting contribution to the session is the abortive jam "Cocoa Leaf," which, after one and a half minutes of chugging rumba and a lurching montuno head, fizzles abruptly, with someone - presumably Schifrin - barking, "Okay, okay, now listen!" This last staccato fragment of discontent lends credibility to the theory that static between Schifrin and bandleader Beny Velarde led to the album being shelved for some time. Still, the former's touch lends a misty fog of Bay Area crime-funk (Schifrin has scored hundreds of movies, including about half of Clint Eastwood's oeuvre, of which Dirty Harry is perhaps the best-known) that helps differentiate La Clave's groove from some of their contemporaries.

By Andy Freivogel

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