Orquesta Akokán at San Francisco Jazz Festival

Harry S. Pariser By

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Orquesta Akokán
San Francisco Jazz Festival
San Francisco, CA
June 16. 2019

Ever wonder what it was like to hear what it was like to be in a Cuban nightclub in the 1950s? Attending a concert by Havana, Cuba-based Orquesta Akókan is a sure way to experience that energy: Akokán brings that era's music to life. Formed by pianist and arranger Mike Eckroth—who wrote his Ph.D. thesis on Cuban piano solos of the 1940s—in collaboration with singer Jose Pepito Gomez and composer Jacob Plasse—the band has already had a heady presence on the scene, with its first, self-titled CD being nominated for a Grammy.

The orchestra brings together musicians from groups such as Los Van Van and Irakere. Akokán (Yoruba for "from the heart") recreates (while modernizing) the mambo as performed by the orchestras of stellar vocalists Benny Moré and Dámaso Pérez Prado.

Who were Moré and Prado? Cuban legends abound surrounding Bartolomé Maximiliano Moré (1919-1963), the great vocalist and master of countless styles. Moré's mother related that he improvised a guitar out of a board and string at the age of six. After a hardscrabble existence, Moré established himself as a legend, only to succumb to demon rum at age 43. Prado (1916-1989), dubbed "The King of Mambo," specialized in the mambo, but, surprisingly, moved to Mexico (where he became naturalized) and ran his international career from there.

For their San Francisco premiere, the seven-member horn section stood on platforms to the right of the stage at SFJAZZ while singer Gómez stood center stage, and pianist Eckroth held forth on the 88s to the left. Everyone, save Gómez—who was dressed purely in white save for his tie and shiny, reflective black shoes—donned black jackets and light shirts. The orchestra charged into a rumba, featuring a searing baritone sax solo by Evaristo Denis, before launching into "No Te Hagas" which featured master percussionist Roberto Jr Vizcaino Torre playing the small drum secured to the front of his bongos. Gómez got everyone to clap hands, and the horns chimed in in tandem to end the piece.

Next up was "Un tobacco para Elegua," a tribute to the Yoruban god of the roadways, which Plasse introduced with an enchanting interlude on his tres, the traditional Cuban guitar; the tune featured Gómez's characteristic demonstrative vocals; güiro in hand he gesticulated forcefully, evoking yet more hand clapping from the audience. Pianist Eckroth stood and spread his arms to bring the tune to a climax. Plasse commented "They're killing us, huh?" Piano introduced "Mambo Rapido" and silver-and-grey haired flautist López, backed by light percussion, came front and center to solo lyrically. Regal piano tones ended the song, and the band was called. An instrumental featured a baritone sax solo, Gómez encouraged handclapping once more, while Jamil Schevery gave a rollicking tenor sax solo.

"Ciudado Con El Tumpador," a number which warns men to look out for the conga player (tumpador)—because he might steal your partner—featured strong sax and trumpet work and was highlighted by a rainbow of gorgeous pastels from the piano.

Commencing the second set, "A Gozar La Vida" featured a timbale-congo duet; César López soloed vibrantly on alto saxophone; tenor saxophone added flavor. An instrumental followed.

During "Yo Soy Para Ti," Gómez loaned his güiro to various audience members for safekeeping so he could freely dance and sing up a storm. "La Corbata Barata" allowed Gómez to show off even more of his dance moves; couples got up to dance in the balconies, complimenting those already sweating on the packed dance floor. A collective bow from the band brought a standing ovation; they were lured back for "Otro Nivel" which concluded the exciting evening.

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