Pacific Mambo Orchestra’s star-studded, groundbreaking studio debut takes Latin Big Band to dizzying new heights. Led by pianist Christian Tumalan and trumpeter Steffen Kuehn, this 20-piece ensemble injects the Big Band sounds of the 1940s through 1960s with a fresh, contemporary sound and a diverse range of musical influences. Among the eight original and two cover classic tunes in this CD you’ll find everything from highly danceable Salsa, Bachata and cha-cha, to sweeping romantic ballads, with traces of American jazz, R&B, classical and Afro-Cuban music scattered throughout. The songs pay tribute to the pioneers in each genre, while paving the way to a bold new sound designed to reach the next generation of Big Band listeners.

This sizzling debut may be attributed to the hard work, passion and determination of visionary bandleaders Tumalan and Kuehn, who founded the group two years ago with the aspiration of growing PMO into the most active Latin Big Band in the nation. Once they achieved their goal, they embarked on a six-month grassroots campaign to finance their first recording, seeking support from aficionados via local clubs and the internet. And the fans came through. The resulting compilation is the first project of its kind to emerge from the San Francisco music scene and a unique, welcome contribution to the music world. Tumalan and Kuehn not only produced the album, but also performed, composed, and wrote the music and lyrics for many of the tracks. One of their biggest accomplishments was gathering the impressive roster of international, award-winning talent that appears on the album. Together, band members and contributors bring forth decades of collective experience playing with a variety of musical greats, from Dizzy Gillespie, Carlos Santana, Herbie Hancock and Tito Puente, to Art Garfunkel, Blood Sweat and Tears, Jerry Garcia and Mariah Carey. The resulting tracks showcase fresh songwriting, inspired arrangements, clever improvisations, and superlative vocals. Setting the album’s eclectic tone is a mesmerizing opening track, PMO Intro, which combines elements of jazz, classical, Latin, Afro-Cuban and contemporary into one elaborate, multifarious arrangement. Listeners will swoon as a sultry piano intro slowly builds and then explodes into an up-tempo descarga overflowing with the lush sounds of a full orchestra. From this uplifting intro, the excitement quickly mounts with the rousing salsa standard El Cantante, a fitting homage to “el cantante de los cantantes,” Hector Lavoe. Yo soy el cantante, pero cuando el show se acaba soy otro humano cualquiera,” PMO’s version radiates with warmth and gusto, thanks to the seductive inflections of three-time Grammy winner (and eight-time nominee) Willie Torres, a feisty trombone solo by Jeff Cressman, and fierce timbales sounds  from 11-time Grammy winning drummer Karl Perazzo. Listeners seeking romance need look no further, because PMO tackles amor with a passion. Here the standout is the orchestra’s Latin interpretation of the Stevie Wonder cover Overjoyed, which jazz virtuoso Kenny Washington and his velvety smooth vocals render absolutely irresistible. The sensuous salsa tune Cuando Estoy Contigo showcases the multifarious musings of Grammy winning singer Carlos Cascante. And in the ballad Bolero Cocomo, the beguiling songwriter Alexa Weber Morales alternately growls and belts her torchy, original lyrics while saxophonist Gene Burket and drummer Tommy Igoe deliver energetic solos. Listeners left wanting for more bolero will enjoy the final track, an instrumental version of Cocomo that highlights Pete Cornell on sax.

Naturally, the album’s dance material shines just as brightly as the ballads, and again it’s the merging of musical styles and influences that gives the music its kick. The party gets under way with Mr. 5.0, a swingy cha-cha number starring jazz guitarist Ray Obiedo and flutist Evan Francis, and continues with Muevete Con Prisa, a delicious Latin-jazz song composed and arranged by saxophonist Aaron Lington and featuring killer solos by Tony Peebles on tenor sax, Kuehn on trumpet, and Grammy nominee Omar Ledezma on timbales. Cascante grabs the mic once again, accompanied this time by Braulio Barrera and his spirited bongo playing, on La Ambicion, which puts an artistic salsa spin on the universal “money can’t buy happiness” theme. And in Querer Como Ayer, in which singer Armando Cordoba laments the loss of that first flush of love with his woman, the orchestra achieves its grandest accomplishment yet—the creation of the first-ever Big Band Bachata song—in effect, inventing a new musical hybrid. This is what this group does best, taking a popular genre, infusing it with new sound and elevating it to a wildly exciting level. That is the essence of Pacific Mambo Orchestra, and what makes its debut collection inolvidable.

-Maryann LoRusso