Champaign-Urbana CityView Paper, June 2002

The Craig Russo Latin Jazz Project
(Cagoots Records)

By Jamie Hutchinson

Springfield-based jazz percussionist Craig Russo has kept a quiet presence in the CU music scene in recent years, first with Dan Llano’s Latin jazz groups and now with his own group, which recently made its Zorba’s debut. Despite Russo’s low profile in CU, Delilah is practically a “who’s who” of local artists and technicians-from the recording and mixing by Pogo Studio, to the mastering by Jon Schoenoff, to the photography by Chris Brown and booklet design by Evelyn Shapiro, to the superb musicial contributions of sidemen Jeff Helgesen, Michael Stryker and Jeff Magby. (Former locals Vern Sielert, Tim Green and Josh Walden also make cameo appearances.)

With the exception of “Girl Talk,” these tracks – all popular and jazz standards – are set to Afro-Cuban rhythms. The title track alternates between guanguanco and swing, with Magby on clave peppering Russo’s work on drum set. Oliver Nelson’s “Stolen Moments” becomes a slow-cooking abakua/swing with a meaty solo by tenor saxophonist Willie Akins. Stevie Wonder’s “I Can’t Help It” is a song with Helgesen coolly stating the verse followed by a frenetic, percussion-heavy chorus.

Underneath the CU storyline is a St. Louis subplot: Akins and bassist Willem von Hombracht, featured on every track but one, are a longstanding team in the Gateway City. Akins’ bluesy, hard-edged horn graces the slow swing of “Girl Talk.” Hombracht steadies the group amid the intricate and varied Afro-Cuban cadences, and takes a tasty solo on “Delilah.”

Three cheers for Stryker’s piano – a lush, swinging and sensitive presence throughout this recording.

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