The rich straightahead jazz of Reggie Quinerly gets an Afro-Caribbean spin with The Thousandth Scholar, to be released January 19 on his own Redefinition Music. Quinerly’s fifth album finds the drummer-composer seasoning his musical recipes with what Jelly Roll Morton called “the Spanish tinge,” a sometimes-subtle Latin flavor that he achieves without sacrificing his distinctive soulful sound—and with the help of an ace quartet including pianist Manuel Valera, bassist Matt Brewer, and percussionist Samuel Torres.
The form of the quartet, featuring both drums and hand percussion, is a crucial element of Quinerly’s exploration. It was inspired by two of his favorite albums—Herbie Hancock’s 1963 classic Inventions and Dimensions and Ahmad Jamal’s more recent (2012) masterpiece Blue Moon—both of which feature a similar quartet. “With every album, I explore different aspects of my influences,” Quinerly explains.
In the case of The Thousandth Scholar, that list of influences has Valera’s name near the very top. Quinerly worked closely with the Havana-born pianist, who arranged the drummer’s compositions and coproduced the album. “The connection between melody and rhythm is pretty profound in Afro-Cuban and African music,” says Quinerly, “and Manuel helped me with that.” Additionally, percussionist Torres is a native Colombian, providing another important perspective on the Latin jazz tradition.
Even so, those perspectives are not always easy to detect. Tunes like Valera’s “Invernal” and Quinerly’s “Children Song #10” make gentle use of clave beats and conga textures, while on the waltzing “Sam from Brooklyn” Torres’s whispery shakers are the only surface signifier of Afro-Latin influence. On other tunes, however, that influence is in no doubt: “Folk Song” is carefully built around the groove Torres establishes in his solo introduction, “Ray’s Tune” is a fierce mambo, and “Skain’s Blues” comprises a taut set of interlocking rhythms from all four musicians.
Some of the songs, as their titles suggest, are nods to influences of Quinerly’s outside the Latin jazz rubric. “I’m so fortunate to have been in the presence of so many great people,” he remarks. “I wouldn’t be who I am otherwise.”
“Sam from Brooklyn” expresses Quinerly’s fondness for an old mentor, drum and percussion teacher Sam Dinkins; “Ray’s Tune” celebrates the brilliant and steady hand of pianist Ray Bryant; and the harmonically complex “Skain’s Blues” gives the nod to trumpeter, composer, and educator Wynton Marsalis.
Ultimately, though, that combination of influences only goes so far. It’s Quinerly himself who integrated them into himself to forge a unique voice and musical conception. Even as they’re newly steeped in Latin rhythms and textures, it’s that voice and conception that are of course front and center on The Thousandth Scholar.
Reggie Quinerly was born November 16, 1980, in Houston, Texas, one of the garden spots of 21st-century jazz. Fittingly, he took an early turn in that direction. Lester Grant, who played drums in the Pilgrim United Church of Christ (where Reggie grew up), was a jazz master who became the young musician’s first mentor. Grant not only taught him to play but sent him on an odyssey of discovering the great musicians of jazz past and present.
The odyssey took Quinerly first to Houston’s famous High School of the Performing and Visual Arts, then to the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music in New York, and finally to the Juilliard School for his Master’s in Jazz Studies. There, his circle of mentors widened to include Jimmy Cobb, Lewis Nash, and Kenny Washington.
Shortly after completing his degree at Juilliard, Quinerly recorded and released his first album, 2012’s Music Inspired by Freedmantown. It started him down a fruitful artistic pathway that has also brought forth 2015’s Invictus and 2018’s Words to Love, critically acclaimed albums that helped raise Quinerly’s profile in the jazz world. Last year’s New York Nowhere represented his farewell to the jazz capital and the start of a new creative chapter in Los Angeles. It was in the City of Angels that Quinerly conceived and developed the music that became The Thousandth Scholar.
The enigmatic album title, Quinerly explains, “represents the idea that the journey of learning and discovery is endless. The numerical concept represents the many musicians that have come before me. In acknowledging their sacrifices, I hope to be a continuation of their artistic excellence.”
Reggie Quinerly will be performing the music of The Thousandth Scholar at Sam First, 6171 W. Century Blvd. #180, Los Angeles (Live Stream tickets available on the website www.samfirstbar.com) on Thursday, 3/21/24.