Marlon Simon and The Nagual Spirits Return with the Ambitious New album “On Different Paths” Blending a Myriad of Cultural and Musical Traditions
Available January 26, 2024 via Truth Revolution Records, “On Different Paths” Features Pianist Edward Simon, Trumpeters Michael Simon and Alex Norris, Saxophonist Peter Brainin, Bassist Boris Kozlov and Percussionist Roberto Quintero.
Drummer, percussionist and composer Marlon Simon has traveled myriad different paths over the course of his nearly four-decade career. There is the personal journey that has led him from a small town in his native Venezuela to pursuing jazz in Philadelphia, New York, and now his current home in Katy, Texas, a small city near Houston. Then there are the parallel musical paths in which he’s excelled – playing straight-ahead swing with pianist Hilton Ruiz, traditional Afro-Cuban rhythms with the Fort Apache Band and Chucho Valdés, Latin jazz grooves with Dave Valentin, and progressive jazz propulsion with Bobby Watson.
With On Different Paths, his seventh and most ambitious album to date, Simon merges those disparate trajectories into a single new pathway that stretches far off into a hybrid future. Due out January 26, 2024 via Truth Revolution Records, On Different Paths is Simon’s fifth outing with his eclectic band The Nagual Spirits and one that vaults forward from the venturesome fusion of pan-Latin jazz and classical influences on its predecessor, 2007’s In Case You Missed It.
The album, funded in part by Simon’s 2022 Guggenheim Fellowship, features the percussionist’s acclaimed younger brothers, pianist Edward Simon and trumpeter Michael Simon, along with bassist Boris Kozlov, trumpeter Alex Norris, saxophonist Peter Brainin, and percussionist Roberto Quintero. They’re supplemented on several tracks by bassoonist Monica Ellis and French horn player Kevin Newton, expanding the group into a chamber ensemble.
“I think with this record I’ve finally found the authentic voice for this band,” says Simon. “In the past, although The Nagual Spirits has explored a lot of different territory, I’ve always played strictly authentic Latin jazz with a touch of Venezuelan folkloric rhythms. For On Different Paths, I took elements from a number of countries, rhythms and traditions and blended them into a mixture that’s specific to this band.”
To take just one example, the vibrant title track commingles elements of Venezuelan joropo, Brazilian samba, and Cuban 6/8 rhythms in the intricate weave of drums and congas underneath the forward-looking modern jazz harmonies. It’s a bracing, invigorating sound that evokes a captivating solo turn from Edward Simon, but the rich tapestry of cross-cultural sounds is as philosophically as it is musically driven.
“The isolation that we all went through during the pandemic made me start to meditate on a different way to live,” Simon explains in somber tones, a spate of recent shootings in his adopted home of Texas weighing heavily on his mind. “On top of Covid we were seeing so much violence, with racism, police brutality and mass shootings. “I wanted to express through this music that we really need to find a different path as a society.”
The expanded scope of Simon’s compositional vision for The Nagual Spirits can be heard from the album’s opening moments, as “Searching” kicks off the proceedings with a Baroque fanfare that gives way to a moody meld of stealthy Latin groove and lush classical hues. “Walking” is a briskly swinging piece whose palette is boldly enriched by the full array of horns, drawing a bright and probing solo from Norris and a bout of constrained combustibility by the leader.
The sharp-angled melody of “Above Thought” blossoms with Simon’s layered harmonies, while the deceptively conservative title of “Straight Ahead” is a proposition, not a definition, suggesting a multi-cultural standard for future traditions – one version of which is vividly realized on “Un Canto Llanero,” as Venezuelan merengue evolves into joropo, the whole enveloped in a gorgeous orchestration.
The presence of brothers Edward and Michael spotlights the centrality of family to Simon’s life and music, a core value illustrated through several pieces throughout On Different Paths. The impassioned ballad “Missing Them” is a dedication to the Simons’ late parents, father Hadsy Simon and mother Daisy Morillo, while “Pa” is dedicated specifically to Hadsy, who passed away on August 17th, 2017. The date of his death provides the title for the album’s closing track, which blends Venezuelan folkloric rhythms and progressive jazz harmonies to pay homage to a man who Simon cites as not just a father but a mentor and an indefatigable supporter for his children.
“He dedicated his life to his children,” says Simon (in addition to the three musician brothers, the family also includes their sister Heidy, a speech and language therapist based in Curaçao). “He worked his entire life to give us a better life.”
Of course, Simon’s family has expanded over the years to include the members of the Nagual Spirits, which has been together since 1996, and the many musicians who have mentored and collaborated with the percussionist. That includes the late, great Andy González, bassist and co-founder of the legendary Conjunto Libre and Fort Apache Band and whose innovative approach to Latin jazz provided a foundational path for Simon to follow. The drummer repays that debt with the lively “Rumba Pa Andy.”
Finally, “Variations on Ericka’s Theme” revives a piece originally recorded by the Nagual Spirits on 2000’s Rumba a la Patato and, in an arrangement with strings, on In Case You Missed It; as well as by Edward on his album La Bikina. The heartfelt song was inspired by the 1999 death of Marlon’s daughter; its reprisal here is dedicated to Roberto Quintero’s daughter Kimberly, who died in 2020.
Marlon Simon stands at a crossroads with On Different Paths. The stellar music represents the meeting place of multiple journeys: musical, emotional, personal and cultural. At the same time, they lead away down promising new paths – destination unknown, but guided by Simon’s stunning vision, surely routes to creative discovery.