Latin Jazz All Stars
Mt. Vernon Country Club
January 24, 2013
Latin jazz is as diverse as Latin America itself. While it comes in many different flavors and colors, a constant is the rhythm. Jazz is a rhythmic-centric music to begin with, but the Latin tinge adds a turbo charger to the project.
Thursday night's version of Latin jazz was of the all-star variety. The band claimed to be egalitarian with no official "leader." But, similar to the night sky, some stars are better known than others. The first among equals in this band, at least name-recognition-wise, was Steve Turre
on trombone and shells. Next would probably be Nestor Torres
on flute. Not quite so well known, but definitely not to be overlooked, were Elio Villafranca
on piano, Chembo Corniel
on congas and Joshua Ramos
on bass. The newest All Star was Denver drummer Manuel Lopez, who was recruited a mere 48 hours before the show. Yuri Hevia was originally scheduled for the drum chair, but when he took ill shortly before the show, Lopez stepped in and executed a masterful performance on short notice.
Turre tamed the trombone quite some time ago, as he demonstrated on multiple boisterous solos. He has worked in many jazz genres over the years, including straight ahead jazz and jazz-rock as well as Latin jazz. His solos Thursday night drew from both bebop and Latin sources, but it was his shell playing that caused the most excitement. He brought along about a half dozen conch and other sea shells and during the two times he played them on solos, he switched shells every few seconds. He would put his hand in the shell bell to change the pitch, and all the shell switching made me wonder whether shells come on different keys like harmonicas. Then I realized all shells are in the key of sea.
Torres' flute was a great contrast, register-wise, to Turre's trombone. Whereas Turre blasted in the mid to lower brass range, the flute danced delicately above. Torres is another veteran of the Latin jazz scene, and his ensemble playing with Turre was tight and cohesive. And, despite the band's insistence that it is "leaderless," Torres was the primary concertmaster throughout the evening, calling out (or signaling) tempo changes and other left and right turns, particularly to Lopez who, obviously had the least familiarity with the material. It always seemed to work.
Villafranca was a clear highlight of the evening. His piano playing was simply outstanding. He's probably gotten over his disappointment that the piano only has 88 keys, but I'm sure if the one he used Thursday night had more, he would have used them. He was constantly at one end or the other of the keyboard. He would pound out chords with either hand and play single note runs with either the right or left hand. He also provided the only vocal of the evening with Pat Martino
's "El Hombre" in which Villafranca even attempted an audience sing-along. Given the fact the venue had the phrase "Country Club" in its name, the potentially reserved crowd joined in adequately to create the desired effect.
Corniel is another band leader who submersed himself in the all star band. All of the other instruments on the bandstand (well, except maybe the shells) could appear in many different types of bands, but it's the congas that announce "Latin Jazz" more than anything. Of course congas go with lots of different musical forms too. In fact Corniel plays salsa as much as Latin jazz. But in this context, the congas provide the distinctive Latin propulsion. Thursday night, Corniel laid the ground work for the Latin beat and provided the incessant undercurrent of rhythmic righteousness.
The material the All Stars selected consisted, for the most part, of classic Latin tunes written by some of the biggest names in the business. Besides Martino's "El Hombre," the band played "Gloria," a tune written by Chucho Valdez, "Sweet Love of Mine" by Woody Shaw
's "Europa" which morphed into Bobby Capo's "Sonando Con Puerto Rico." Even in the "Country Club" where decorum is so important, the All Stars inspired plenty of movement by the audience, from head nodding to chair wiggling to downright booty shaking. And if I'm not mistaken, that kind of thing is one of the primary reasons for the existence of Latin jazz.