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Rock fans might recognize the name Alex Acuña from his many, many appearances as a sessioneer, particularly on albums produced by T Bone Burnett. But jazz fans know him from his early work accompanying Cuban bandleader Pérez Prado and his stint with jazz fusion icons Weather Report, for whom he played drums or percussion on two of their seminal albums, Black Market and the bestselling Heavy Weather. (He also appeared with Joni Mitchell during her fusion phase, powering her masterful live album Shadows and Light.) His first record as a leader in seventeen years, Gifts reunites Acuña with keyboaridst Otmaro Ruiz, guitarist Ramón Stagnaro and drummer John Peña, members of the Unknowns, a group he assembled for previous solo albums, plus saxophonist Lorenzo Ferrero. Drawing on all of his previous experience, Acuña leads the band through the Latin jazz he started with (“Cuncho,” “Aletin Aletun,” a frisky version of Herbie Hancock’s “One Finger Snap*), and the fusion he helped propagate with Weather Report (“In Town,” “Malencia,” the ethereal “Regalo”). Paying direct tribute to his old employer, Acuña also offers a groovy take on Cannonball Adderley’s Joe Zawinul composed “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy.” As with his old outfit’s mid-period work, Acuña concentrates on melodic composition more than fiery improvisation, with the emphasis on ensemble playing instead of hot solos. Tightly arranged and smoothly performed, Gifts makes one wonder why Acuña waited almost two decades for another artistic statement.
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