Jazz with Attitude

Guitarist Mark Towns has national hopes in this self-production of his CD

Unfortunately the European tour and Towns's local dates will have to wait a little while. The guitarist's ankles were crushed recently when he was hit by a car. It will likely be at least a month before he is performing in public again. His recording sessions in December are up in the air.

But that hasn't stopped Towns from trying to get his new CD in as many hands as possible. "I won't be happy until [my CD] goes No. 1 on Gavin," Towns says, referring to the radio industry trade magazine, "and wins a Latin Jazz Grammy next year and we get invited to all the major jazz festivals." For more CD and performance updates on Mark Towns, go to

Towns is recognized as a local authority on Latin guitar playing.
Matthew Mahon
Towns is recognized as a local authority on Latin guitar playing.

Flamenco Jazz Latino (Salongo)

A regular on the Houston jazz scene for years -- and, we should note, a former Houston Press music writer -- guitarist Mark Towns has developed a sound that he says is best described as flamenco jazz. That's as good a call as any, but don't accuse him of jumping on the Latin jazz bandwagon. Towns has been incorporating Latin influences into his playing for decades.

Flamenco Jazz Latino is a solid debut album from Towns that likely will garner national attention because of the presence of two Houston-bred stars: saxophonist Kirk Whalum and flutist Hubert Laws, who each appear on one cut. Whalum plays on an instrumental version of Fastball's hit "The Way." As Towns notes, the first eight bars of the verse are hauntingly similar to "Besame Mucho." On first listen, most jazz and Latin buffs would probably think this is a version of "Mucho" until the bridge kicks in. Then it goes from sounding like a Latin-jazz guitar number into a cover of a rock song, which is quite an unusual effect that works in a unique way. Towns inserts his own Latin section into "The Way." In that section, Whalum takes a very smooth solo that he effortlessly slips into the setting as if the song were written for him.

Laws takes his turn on Towns's "Wind on the Mountain," a relaxed, atmospheric song built for extended improvisations. After Towns states the airy melody, pianist Rainel Pino plays a somewhat understated solo. Towns delivers his solo nice and slow -- almost deliberately so -- taking the time to make melodic points. But both Towns and Pino, who are solid here, take a backseat to Laws, whose gorgeous tone adds another dimension to the song. Laws's bouncy solo is simply masterful. He creates tension and release several times, and takes the listener on a journey that's filled with interesting turns.

If Whalum and Laws get Towns noticed by radio stations and national publications, Towns is more than ready for it. His guitar playing, on both electric and acoustic, is excellent throughout. On "Sabrosa," one of Towns's 11 original compositions and one that has a fantastic melody, Towns takes a textbook solo. It's logical and filled with little runs between melodic statements that enhance the solo's development. He never reduces the solo to a display of chops, though he clearly has them.

Flamenco lovers will get off on "Salamanca," which opens with some classic Spanish riffs, some at high velocity, and would make any flamenco fan proud, as would Towns's fast-paced solo. "Corriente" is a more atmospheric and dramatic song, with some of the traditional flamenco power chords. While there's a strong Spanish feel to it, "Corriente" clearly derives some other world influences. That's part and parcel of Towns's habit of mixing genres in his songs. "Chuchu," for instance, is a mambo, yet the melody is eerily similar to Miles Davis's "Freddie Freeloader." "After the Rain" has Latin rhythm, but also Midwestern passages à la Pat Metheny/Lyle Mays. On "Like the Wind," which is a bolero, Towns creates sonic atmospheres with his guitar tones, and his solo style owes much more to jazz than anything Latin. At the same time, other songs, like "Merengue Gitano," are Latin from the get-go.

With the glut of Latin jazz releases out there, it would be easy to overlook Flamenco Jazz Latino. That would be a mistake. Towns isn't just playing Latin jazz, he's making sure it continues to evolve.

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