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Conrad Herwig's Latin Side All Star Band: Intensity On A Cold City Night

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Conrad Herwig's Latin Side All Star Band
The Blue Note
New York, New York
January 11, 2010

"Que Viva Miles, 'Trane, Herbie & Wayne."

For more than a decade, trombonist Conrad Herwig has created a highly identifiable niche in contemporary jazz with his series of Latin Side CDs, which began with the startling The Latin Side of John Coltrane (Astor Place, 1996). That Grammy-nominated recording revealed how naturally Coltrane compositions could be adapted to smartly appropriate Afro-Caribbean arrangements. It was no surprise that the concept applied just as smoothly to the music of Miles Davis and Wayne Shorter. The logical next step is, of course, Herbie Hancock, a composer of numerous Latin-tinged tunes, among them the crossover hit "Watermelon Man."

On Monday, Jan. 11, 2010, Herwig brought his Latin jazz group to the Blue Note, site of his live recordings Another Kind of Blue, The Latin Side of Miles Davis (Half Note, 2003) and Sketches of Spain Y Mas (Half Note, 2006). Herwig billed this group as all stars, and the line up varied from the band that has more regularly appeared with the trombonist at the Greenwich Village club. Just the fact that Craig Handy, current music director of the Mingus Big Band, held down the tenor and flute spot was enough to justify the billing.

The band covered tunes from Herwig's growing book of Coltrane, Shorter and Davis compositions, and it served as a feature for highlights from recent Latin Side releases. Herwig's version of Coltrane's "Blue Trane" is on the verge of becoming nearly as familiar as the original. A selection from the soon to be released Half Note CD, The Latin Side of Herbie Hancock, "Oliloqui Valley," a somewhat overlooked tune which first appeared on Hancock's Empyrean Isles (Blue Note, 1964), was particularly notable for an invigorated perspective. Davis' "Solar," arranged as a Cuban son montuno, sounded tailor made for the Afro-Caribbean treatment.

Drummer Robby Ameen and Ruben Rodriguez on electric bass have long been Herwig regulars. Trumpeter Michael Walter White recently toured Latin America with Herwig's Latin Side band. Congero Johnny Rivero relentlessly infused the music with a driving, forward motion, while pianist Bill O'Connell brought a sometimes stately reserve to the fervid proceedings.

Impressive in what has been trumpeter Brian Lynch's customary role, White, a thoughtful player, knew just when to ratchet up the fire to send things into high gear. Handy, resourceful in coming up with original patterns and variations in his solos, seemed invigorated by the heavily percussive context. He mesmerized with an instinct for pacing and building his improvisations to decisive climaxes.

It was a night of high-energy, muscle-moving music with not a ballad in sight. A few memorable particulars include Herwig calling out "montuno" to pianist O'Connell during the height of "Blue Trane" to bring things to a simmer for the congas solo; Handy and White silently reading the music and fingering keys to go over an upcoming written passage during the percussion solo in "Oliloqui Valley"; Ameen's trap solos, smacking the snare rim timbalero style with strategically placed, off-kilter rhythmic shots; the odd twists and turns Herwig's of body contortions as he became more and more absorbed in unbelievably intense and mind-boggling trombone solos.

In many ways, contemporary jazz doesn't get more exciting than this. The music worked on numerous levels—as jazz, as Latin, as world music, as dance music, as Latin jazz. Call it what you will. At the end of the night, both the audience and the players seemed to have come together in the same experience of release, satisfaction and exaltation.

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