Houston keeps churning out stellar jazz artists. One of the latest, and brightest, is bassist Marcos Varela, who is talented enough to have been mentored by Ron Carter and employed by Billy Hart and Clifton Anderson during his dozen years in New York, smart enough to enlist drummer Hart, trombonist Anderson and pianist George Cables to play on San Ygnacio, and confident enough to forge his own identity on this remarkable debut.
Hart and Cables are among the rare breed of already-accomplished musicians who have significantly upped their game in recent years. They collectively light the fuse on the opener and only standard of the disc, "I Should Care." Arranged by Cables, it simmers and swings with hard-bop seasoning, with Cables alternating driving chords with single-note runs while Hart drops bombs to dramatize the accents and Logan Richardson blows through on alto. A pair of George Mraz compositions provide two more highlights: "Pepper" follows a glorious opening salvo by Hart with a torrid unison line between Varela and tenorman Dayna Stephens (his lone appearance); "Picturesque" finds Varela filling Mraz's role as a linchpin of exquisite trio interplay between Cables and Hart.
Varela deploys his working quartet of peers for two tracks, including his own composition, "Colinas de Santa Maria," named for the ranch in San Ygnacio, Texas, where his family has lived for more than two centuries. By contrast, the harmonically rich "Red on Planet Pluto" looks forward, composed by quartet pianist Eden Ladin and featuring sinuous work by saxophonist Arnold Lee. The final song, "Where the Wild Things Are," flirts with fusion and includes a nearly three-minute solo intro showcasing Varela's bass playing. Toss in an evocative cover of Hart's balladic tribute to his daughter, "Lullaby for Imke," and two songs composed by Anderson that feature his trombone, and, on paper, San Ygnacio becomes a jumble of styles, personnel and intentions. In practice, however, it is a delightfully varied collection that improves and coheres with repeated listening and merits serious consideration as one of the best debuts of 2016.