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Azteca La Piedra del Sol
Latin-tinged music has long been an exotic staple on the American music scene. In the 1940s, we had the samba stylings of Carmen Miranda and her longtime music director Dorival Caymmi (whose children went on to become leaders of the Bossa Nova and MPB movements). Such bands as Xavier Cugat's and even Dizzy Gillespie's helped bring Afro-Cuban rhythms to our shores throughout the late 40s to mid-50s. Then the "Exotica" movement took over, with such progenitors as Martin Denny and Lex Baxter giving us aural glimpses of faraway lands. When Black Orpheus was released in 1959, that started the worldwide fascination with Bossa Nova, which really exploded in the states in 1962 courtesy of Stan Getz and then got a second wind with the phenomenally successful Sergio Mendes & Brasil '66, which took off in its eponymous year. A couple of years later, Carlos Santana came along and mixed a more potent dose of rock into the stew (even though Sergio's more adventurous tracks had always had a solid pop-rock underpinning), which led to a slew of similar acts like Osibisa popping up on major labels, few if any of whom matched Santana's chart success. One of these acts was the formidable supergroup Azteca, whose founding members had cut their band teeth with Carlos, and who recorded two really excellent albums for Columbia in 1972 and 1973 before splitting up.
Coke and Pete, the fabulous Escovedo Brothers (Sheila E is Pete's daughter), were already well established Bay Area percussionists by the time they were asked to join Santana's touring group (as opposed to his recording comrades) in the early 1970s, when Carlos' band was undergoing some internal strife. Coke quickly decided that it was a smarter career decision to form his own group, something that apparently initially at least was met with approval from Santana himself, as well as Santana's drummer, Michael Shrieve, both of whom were supposed to record with the newly minted group Azteca. For some peculiar reason Columbia decided that even guest appearances by these stars was not going to be allowed, thereby probably killing a major sales and marketing tool for themselves which no doubt would have catapulted Azteca into Top Ten status, something they never achieved but most assuredly deserved. (If I may be allowed a brief side note, Columbia/Sony's business decisions continue to defy logic to this day, as they sit on literally hundreds, if not thousands, of recordings that have never seen the CD or digital download light of day. Azteca's first eponymous album was briefly released on CD via GNP Crescendo years ago--I literally shouted for joy when I found it in a little shop here in Portland probably over a decade ago. Their second Columbia album, "Pyramid of the Moon," is still gathering archival dust somewhere. Azteca is not alone in this regard by any stretch--I was just last week lamenting Sony's idiocy upon the sad passing of jazz trumpeter/flugelhornist Freddie Hubbard, whose first Columbia album, "High Energy," released at about the same time as Azteca was recording for Columbia, has never been released in a post-LP format, despite it being easily as good as anything Hubbard recorded during his long stint on CTi).
Despite the non-participation of Santana and Shrieve, Coke put together a killer assortment of players, including Lenny White on drums, future Journey superstar Neal Schon on guitar, Tom Harrell on trumpet and Wendy Haas on vocals (the group in its Columbia incarnation was huge for its time, nearing 20 players). Azteca was a much more adventurous, multi-cultural group than Santana ever was, with blistering cross-rhythms, and a proto Afro-Latin call and response method in several tunes (something that Sergio Mendes was also experimenting with at that very same time in his extremely unique recording "Primal Roots"). A little bit Santana, a little bit Columbia-mates Chicago or B,S&T, with the nonstop Latin percussion that defined both Mendes and Santana, Azteca was simply breathtaking to listen to. The sales gods were not with Azteca, unfortunately, and the group disbanded after two wonderful Columbia albums (and you really should try finding these if you're a fan of any kind of Latin music).
This equally wonderful film documents the band's reunion for a 2007 concert, and finds them older but no less fiery (Coke died many years ago, but Pete is still around). They're also all in very good humor--Pete jokes after their first tune about how they're too tired now to continue. If vocally they're not quite at the level they were 35 or so years ago, instrumentally this group is still as impressive as it ever was, with charter members delivering knockout solos alongside newer recruits for this concert.
Director Daniel Meza is obviously a huge fan of the group, and ping pongs back and forth between interview segments, rehearsals and actual performance footage at the Key Club in Hollywood in September 2007. He elicits a lot of very interesting background on the group from the various charter members, as well as the trials of what recording for a major label entailed in those days. If some of the concert footage is haphazardly handled (some of the soloists are not shown while playing, while a camera stays fixed on another non-soloing member, for example), overall this documentary is a compelling piece as both music history and music performance. If you've never experienced Azteca, prepare to have your socks blown off by its very heady mix of rock, R&B, and Latin influences. Maybe someone with a brain will get this group into the recording studio again and let them cut loose on new material. Plus, there's always "Pyramid of the Moon" gathering dust on some shelf somewhere.
Azteca offers an enhanced 1.78:1 image that is decently sharp, though hampered by some poor contrast in the darkly lit concert footage. Saturation and detail are above average, if not knockout quality. Interview segments come off best overall, with rehearsal footage coming in second.
While the DD 2.0 soundtrack is excellent, this DVD's 5.1 mix is superb, with brilliant fidelity and separation. There's so much going in any given Azteca song that the added immersion of the 5.1 mix is an incredible boon. You'll feel like you're in the middle of an explosion of percussion and instruments. No subtitles are available.
Several good bonuses augment the disc, including some additional songs, extended interview segments and more rehearsal footage.
Azteca never received the acclaim and market success it deserved. Hopefully this DVD will help introduce the group to a new generation of listeners that's been raised on the "World Music" phenomenon and will be more attuned to Azteca's heady mix of genres. Highly recommended.
"G-d made stars galore" & "Hey, what kind of a crappy fortune is this?" ZMK, modern prophet