Latin Jazz All-Stars Take Blues Alley by Storm

Matt Merewitz By

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The enthusiasm from the musicians and the audience was electric and I left the show with the rhythms ringing in my ears and my heart.
Every year Blues Alley brings some of the hippest cats to town of whom very few are in the know. Saturday August 2nd, around 10:15 PM, drenched in sweat and anxiously awaiting the beginning of the second set at the storied DC nightspot, I began my notes on “The Latin Jazz All-Stars,” which consists of a handful of New York-based artists who have been and are currently influential on today’s cutting-edge and increasingly popular Latin jazz scene. As soon as the band began “Impressions” to play, the heat ceased to be a problem. No air conditioning could put out this fire.
Co-fronted by trumpeter Ray Vega and trombonist Steve Turré, the all-stars consisted of Arturo O’Farrill on piano, veteran Dominican sideman Mario Rivera on saxophones, Andy Gonzalez on bass, and Steve Berrios on drums; all alumni of Tito Puente’s bands. On the second tune of the set, Vega passionately introduced the man of the hour, a legendary Cuban conguero, Carlos “Patato” Valdes, a small man with a whole lot of heart.
Patato’s animated gesticulations and impeccable rhythmic feel truly stole the show as he provided comic relief to an audience that needed as much distraction as they could get from the confusing poly-rhythmic figures and labyrinths of rhythm and harmony. The movement towards jazz being an “art form” analogous to browsing a gallery of art, has taken away much of the interaction between the musicians and the audience. This critic feels that much is often lost by the audience simply taking at face value the often complex ideas the musicians preach in their improvisations. The musician can get to a point where he is being taken too seriously and you lose that interaction that was so central to jazz and especially Latin jazz as a dance music.
Patato represents an older generations of musicians (like Terry Gibbs and Tito Puente) who not only know their trade but always knew how to keep an audience engaged in the process. I’ve noticed very recently that not many musicians will joke around with the audience in a manner that keeps people laughing and having a good time while still enjoying the music (though they are seated throughout the performance).

The band, especially Vega, made a genuine effort to explain Patato’s significance in Latin jazz’ history. Being the elder statesman not to mention resident ladies-man, Patato really was the featured attraction, as the audience was thoroughly entertained by his wit and occasional loose tongue.

Steve Turre is no mystery man to D.C., as he has been known to make at least one stop annually in the metropolitan area. However, few jazz fans are aware of this California-born Mexican-American’s playing history. A seminal trombonist, arranger, and innovator, Turré has not only been an active recording artist on the Verve and Telarc Jazz labels, but has also been with bands as diverse as Van Morrison, Tito Puente, the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band, and an 18-year veteran of the Saturday Night Live band (from which he and two-thirds of the band was recently fired for being “too old”). Growing up in the San Francisco bay area, Turre was raised on daily doses of mariachi, jazz, and other Latin music.

I had a chance to sit down and talk the man who is known for both trombone and seashells. Our conversation ranged from fellow trombonists Sam Burtis and John Fedchock to world politics. I was most interested in his versatility as a recording artist. Explaining his current working groups Turre said “I have about five groups right now. First is my regular quartet with bass, drums, and piano. Then there are my TNT Quintet (trombone and tenor), my One4J Quintet [with a who’s who of trombone] honoring the late J.J Johnson, my Sextet with Strings, and Sanctified Shells, all of which I compose and arrange for.”

Needless to say, this is a man who has his stuff together. As I talked to him, fans came up to him to get autographs on LPs dating back several decades including one with Rahsaan Roland Kirk. It is evident he has a following among jazz fans; not too surprising for a guy with such a signature look (with long goatee (sans moustache) and long braided black hair).

Finally, having the opportunity to sit down with Turre, I remembered to ask about a recent contentious issue in the jazz community. Regarding the Thelonious Monk International Trombone competition, some in the jazz community had been grumbling about the fact that Andre Heyward, an already established trombonist with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, should not have won the award, but Turre, who was a judge, simply disspelled that rumor by saying simply “the decision on Andre was unanimous. He was the only one playing his butt off.”

On piano, was Arturo O’Farrill. After inheriting his father’s legendary Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra (which has played weekly at Birdland for years), O’Farrill the younger recieved a lot of the press’ adulation after recently being picked up by Jazz at Lincoln Center for a few concerts. O’Farrill the elder had been a permanent installation on the New York Latin scene as composer-arranger since the 1940s when he wrote one of his most famous works, the “Afro-Cuban Jazz Suite.” Chico, a trumpeter himself, had hoped to feature bop trumpeter Fats Navarro on the premiere, but when the trumpeter couldn’t make the gig, they called on Bird, who understood the piece in seconds and soloed effortlessly.

O’Farrill the younger inherited a great tradition and looks to be in fine form leading the big band and in his solo efforts. After the show he informed me that after a day off from the road, the big band would be flying to France for Jazz à Marciac, a grand festival which has become one of the world’s premiere jazz festivals.

The band opened the set with a free groove on Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints.” The set consisted of approximately an hour and a half of music including “Footprints”, an original entitled “KD,” a rumba version of “Invitation” featuring the percussionists, and finally an extended vocal feature written by Patato entitled “Como Suena mi Son?” (Translated: “How do you like my son?”). Here of course, son refers to the Afro-Cuban rhythm, not the English word used to describe a young offspring.

“K.D.” is from the pen of Bobby Porcelli, Vega’s alto saxophonist on his recent Palmetto release, Pa’Lante. The tune is based on the chords of “Alone Together,” and the name is derived from the initials of trumpeter Kenny Dorham, to whom the song is dedicated. Vega’s playing surely puts him up there with the bebop sensibilities of Roy Hargrove and the Latin flavor of Arturo Sandoval. In addition, his knowledge of history allowed him to make a fine connection between Dorham and Patato, with whom the elder Cuban made his first US record appearance, on Afro-Cuban along with Art Blakey, Oscar Pettiford, Percy Heath, J.J. Johnson, Hank Mobley, Cecil Payne, and Horace Silver. I made a note to explore Vega’s records judging from his stellar performance.

Much of my knowledge of these musicians and the genre itself was gleaned a few years back by viewing Fernando Trueba’s award-winning documentary, Calle 54. This film opened many doors to Latin jazz’ history, rhythms, and recording artists, new and old. My listening has greatly expanded beyond bebop and the like as I was exposed to Michel Camilo, Eliane Elias, Chucho Valdes, Bebo Valdes, Chano Doninguez, the late Chico O’Farrill, Israel ‘Cachao’ Lopez, Puntilla, Patato and many others. Listening to these great artists provided some good insights into the development of Latin music in America and why it has become standard for jazz musicians to include Latin pieces on their recordings and live shows. One of the best history lessons in the film itself comes in the feature on the late timbale great and bandleader Tito Puente, whose restaurant in New York has a wall documenting Latin jazz’ greatest innovators from Machito to Eddie Palmieri and Mario Bauza. I highly recommend this film to anyone interested in learning more about Latin jazz. The DVD offers bonus features including a spoken mini-documentary on the origins and evolution of Latin jazz with insights from Puente, Bebo and Chucho Valdez (who are father and son respectively), Camilo, Trueba, and Andy Gonzales.

Speaking of Gonzales, the bassist, well-known as a mainstay on the New York Latin jazz scene for the past 30+ years, brought a seemingly straight-ahead approach to the opener at Blues Alley but later showed his appreciation and capability as to the function of the bass in Latin jazz. “You really have to approach the bass from an entirely different approach than in jazz,” says Gonzales. “Its really important to use the bass as a percussive instrument, especially to reinforce the clavé, which is central to this music,” he explains.

Gonzales and his well-know brother, Jerry (who unfortunately was not part of this all-star group), have oft been known as the co-leaders of their Fort Apache Band, named after the notoriously ethnic Bronx neighborhood where the two Puerto Rican-Americans grew up. The Gonzales brothers represent a cogniscenti of jazz musicians who appreciate their dual heritage and tradition as well as the development of the music in the United States, namely New York.

Trueba’s film tells the story of the brothers growing up in the 60s listening not only to jazz and its constituent sub-genres, but also to the music of their own heritage including Arsenio Rodgriguez, Mario Bauza, Tito Rodriguez, and Israel Cachao Lopez, whose solo bass also inspired Charles Mingus. In their teenage years they would jam with Dizzy Gillespie records, whom Jerry would later have the life-changing opportunity to play drums with. The hand-in-hand relationship of the two art forms, later produced their fusion of jazz and Latin music giving them both the harmonic sophistication of jazz and the rhythmic qualities of Afro-Cuban music. These elements contributed to many hits in the 70s and 80s.

Equally impressive was the flagrant, fiery stick-work of Fort Apache Band drummer Steve Berrios (appears in Calle 54), who like many of today’s Latin set drummers uses the whole set. Besides the standard cymbals, toms, snare and bass drum, Berrios’ arsenal included excellent timbale and cowbell mixed with great rim-shots and artful splash cymbal for color.

Overall, this night was a dream for the listener let alone a jazz writer like me. It was everything I had expected and more. The enthusiasm from the musicians and the audience was electric and I left the show with the rhythms ringing in my ears and my heart.

P.S. Washington D.C. readers of AAJ should be aware of Blues Alley’s upcoming line-up, which includes Harry Connick, Jr., Byron Morris’ Unity (with Hilton Ruiz and Wycliffe Gordon), Gil Scott Heron, Mose Allison, Danilo Perez and Dave Weckl.


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