Album Review: ‘Onwards’ – Alex “Apollo” Ayala
Alex “Apollo” Ayala is a Puerto Rican double bassist who has been steadily building a reputation for musical prowess in his home country in recent years, and one whose name is now beginning to gain currency further afield. ‘Onwards’ is his first album as band leader and for it he is accompanied by pianist Luis Marin and drummer Raul Maldonado, together with a host of other guest musicians.
From the opening bars of the first track, ‘Princess Wayuu’, it is evident that this record is something special. With its double-tracked double bass and monk-like chanting, this composition is simultaneously both modern and seemingly timeless, having a ring of a be-bop standard to it. As such, it is the first of many fine moments the album contains. The airy start to ‘Pensando En Angua’ leads into some splendid bow work from Ayala before a Latin rhythm kicks in. For ‘Falling Grace’, guest guitarist Rafael Rosa provides some tasteful John Scofield-esque licks over a delightful stuttering bass line. The doleful melody to ‘Lamento Y Esperanza’ embellishes a slouchy rhythm before giving pianist Luis Marin the opportunity to shine as he lets loose a florid torrent of arpeggios leading up to a thoughtful and mesmerising bass solo from Ayala. The soulful tone of Yturvidez Vilches’ trumpet on ‘Danzon Para Maria Christina’ shimmers and shapes the atmosphere of the tune.
The album has two solo bass pieces. In the first, ‘Alone Together’, Ayala shows he has a great ear for melody as he skittles back and forth up the neck, strings rattling as he goes. For the second, an imaginative cover of Coltrane’s ‘Giant Steps, he again double-tracks the bass, this time to enable him to duet with himself. It is a tremendous piece of work, showcasing Ayala’s extraordinary skills as both soloist and rhythm player.
As all readers of this website will know, a bass player is only one half of a rhythm section and in Raul Maldonado, Ayala has not only acquired the services of a top notch drummer but also that of a hugely sympathetic player. It is their relationship which stamps its mark on this album, as if it were a sonic watermark embedding itself into every bar they share together. I’ve not heard a jazz rhythm section fit so well together since Ronald Bruner Junior joined Stanley Clarke’s band in 2009.
Like all of the best jazz albums, the intimacy that is generated by a group of musicians performing together is palpable. You can almost hear the sweat dripping from Ayala’s brow splash against his instrument as it falls. He is, quite simply, a terrific bassist in the Ray Brown/Ron Carter school of panache (one which includes Ayala’s mentor, the incomparable Eddie Gomez). ‘Onwards’ is a great listen for jazz fans and bassists everywhere. Heartily recommended.