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Conrad Herwig Group at the 2004 Downbeat/UMKC Conservatory Jazz Festival

Michael Shults By

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Conrad Herwig is going Latin again.

And no one's complaining.

Herwig, the 43 year old trombone extraordinaire and winner of the 2002 Downbeat Critics' Poll for Jazz Trombonist of the Year, has always had an affinity for Latin jazz. He's a veteran of the bands of Mario Bauz, Paquito D'Rivera and Eddie Palmieri, and his 1998 release, The Latin Side of John Coltrane was nominated for a Grammy. Herwig's latest project, Another Kind of Blue: The Latin Side of Miles Davis, features Brian Lynch on trumpet, Mario Rivera on baritone saxophone, Pedro Martinez on hand percussion, Robbie Ameen on drums, Ruben Rodriguez on bass, and Edsel Gomez on piano. The group played in front of a sold-out Pierson Auditorium at the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory of Music to close the 2004 Downbeat/UMKC Conservatory Jazz Festival on January 31st.

The septet opened with their take on the Miles Davis classic tune "Seven Steps to Heaven." This particular arrangement stayed close to Miles' original interpretation of the tune from the album of the same name. Herwig quickly revealed why his staccato, rhythmically inventive style lends itself well to Latin jazz, taking an energetic turn at the mic after Lynch and Rivera had finished blowing. One could easily identify the trombonists in the audience; most of them were already shaking their heads in disbelief.

After an interesting version of "Solar," Herwig introduced legendary altoist Bobby Watson, who currently heads up the jazz program at UMKC. Watson is a beloved figure in Kansas City; after his warm reception, Herwig jokingly suggested that Mr. Watson consider a run at the presidency.

Truly a saxophonist's saxophonist, Watson never seems to mail in a solo. Almost irrevocably, Watson's solos reach a boiling point, a whirlwind of yelping altissimo and quarter-tone laced licks, that stoke some sort of fire deep within the listener. This performance was a prime demonstration, as Watson quickly stole the show.

The band continued with some tunes from their latest CD, which includes the five tunes from Miles' Kind of Blue album and "Petits Machins" from Filles de Kiliminjaro. One of the highlights was the group's rendition of "Freddie Freeloader." One could wonder how such a simplistic tune could be transformed into a hot Latin piece, but Herwig's gang managed to do it. Instead of taking their solos after the original melody statement, Miles' trumpet solo from the original album was harmonized for four horns and played as an extension of the melody.

The band's version of "So What" really grooved, almost violently, evolving from Afro-Cuban, to funk and rock rhythms at the discretion of the aforementioned Ameen and Martinez. Another highlight was Watson's soprano solo on "Blue in Green." Herwig opened the tune with some soulful, almost wailing, trombone work, and then it was the saxophonist's turn. Watson's soprano sound and tone has drastically improved since his early days as a leader (i.e. "And Then Again" from his album entitled "Jewel"). Although no group has ever rivaled the emotional power of the original recording, this interpretation of the tune was still magnificently beautiful.

The group proceeded with "Flamenco Sketches," which opened with a vocal/percussion feature for Cuban percussionist Pedro Martinez on congas. Martinez was a bright spot all night long, showing why he is one of the hottest up-and-coming latin players in the world today. Finally, the set closed with "Petits Machins" which provided a fitting end to a great night of music.

Visit Conrad Herwig on the web at www.conradherwig.com .

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