The fusion of Venezuelan traditional music with jazz is a relatively new thing. Bay Area singer Maria Marquez and mandolinist Jackeline Rago are two leading purveyors of this cross-pollination. Grafting South American, Afro-Caribbean, and Andean roots with American jazz, their accomplishments thus far are pioneering efforts. Now the Snake Trio adds a new creative leaf to this growing branch with Light the Candle (Prende la Vela). On this sophomore outing, Rago plays traditional cuatro, a thin elongated four-string ukulele-like folk guitar, with collaborators Donna Viscuso (flute/alto sax) and Saul Sierra (double bass). The Caracas-born folklorist strums intriguing patterns and expands the harmonic thinking of this indigenous instrument by adapting blues chords and changes to Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus melodies.
This complements jazzhead Viscuso, who plays bebop-inspired riffs on alto and flute. Together, these two sounds are paramount to the interplay and personality of the group, intertwining two cultures with improvisational spark. “Josefina” is a joyous jaropo opener that introduces listeners to the textures with birdlike melodies. As Rago fans the strings of her cuatro with passionate syncopated strums, it’s reminiscent of what a banjo brings to traditional jazz, but with nylon strings and a Latin twist.
Elsewhere, “Light the Candle” is a rousing folk-jazz offering featuring Rago’s falsetto vocal with acclaimed folklorist/percussionist Alexander Livinalli as special guest. “Redondo” is an almost- ten-minute live performance track that grooves and captures the excitement of this small but mighty trio. Yet Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints” shows a meditative impressionistic side, too. Together, it all combines for an energetic, refreshing new direction.