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Ray Vega Quintet at the KC Jazz Club

Matt Merewitz By

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When my parents fell in love, they fell in love. It was this love that made them decide to move to the love capital of the world. Paris? Uh-uh. Oooh...Rome? Nope...They moved to the South Bronx. —Ray Vega
It's usually a bad thing to review a musician's live show and not own at least one of his records. Especially when his discography as a sideman is easily accessible in most record shops. Unfortunately, I do admit this was the case for myself in going to review Ray Vega's Latin Jazz Quintet at the Kennedy Center's KC Jazz Club. Luckily the following day, his publicist sent me his most recent record on Palmetto Records, and since the show I was actually so inspired that I, a jazz critic, went out and purchased his first effort on Palmetto pa'lante.

I'd seen Vega live before—but only as a sideman or a member of a larger ensemble. I knew what he was capable of musically, but I had no idea he was such an entertainer. You see, Ray Vega provides the whole package—the music, the humor, and an ingredient oft forgotten today—pizzazz. No doubt Vega's former boss, the late Tito Puente, known for his joke-telling and ad-libbing, rubbed off on young Vega.

As he got up on stage he set down his music, trumpet and flugelhorn and then suddenly erupted into a flagrant " WaaZaap !" How's that for an ice-breaker.

Having paid his dues with the likes of Puente, Mongo Santamaria, Ray Barretto, Mario Bauza, Dizzy Gillespie, and Pete Escovedo, Vega brings a maturity to the stage that few others can. Well-trained in his teenage years by Jerry Gonzalez (leader of the Fort Apache Band) and many years of listening to the greats, Vega brings both Latin music and hard bop to the table. Its evident this fine trumpeter has listened to and studied his fair share of Freddie, Lee, Brownie, and Fats. At the same time, Vega's Puerto Rican roots are self-evident as he draws on such traditions as bomba, mambo, cha cha, and guaguanco (bomba being the signature Puerto Rican rhythmic style. Commenting on his parents romance Vega told the audience, "When my parents fell in love, they fell in love. It was this love that made them decide to move to the love capital of the world. Paris? Nah. Oh... Rome ? Nope...They moved to the South Bronx." It was this type of chatter and relentless Latin-bop attitude that made this evening such a wonderful ride.

The majority of the tunes were straight from the trumpeter's most recent record, his second on the Palmetto label, Squeeze, Squeeze. He explained very poignantly to the audience that the title refers to a very personal matter—his seven-year-old son Aaron.

"Every morning when I'm walking my seven-year-old to school (or to the local bar) and we come to a crosswalk, he looks up at me and says "Squeeze, squeeze daddy,' and that's how we know that everything in the world is ok and nothing's gonna happen when we crosses the street."

The first of the set was a Marty Sheller original entitled "Salazar," named after the New York deejay, Max Salazar whom Vega listened to as a youngster growing up in the South Bronx. (Sheller was a producer for Mongo Santamaria when Vega was in Mongo's band). Ray spoke at length about the profound impact that Salazar had on him when he was growing up and rightfully encouraged the audience to "give it up for Mongo." That was followed by McCoy Tyner's "Contemplation" and Vega's own "Smile You're in Beirut," a quote Vega insists "I'd be more than happy to tell you what it means after the show—when you have your CD in hand."

Accompanied by one of the best Latin jazz rhythm sections I've ever seen live, Vega brought musicians all new to me: pianist Igor Atalita, bassist Gregg August, set drummer Adam Weber, and conguero Steve Kroon. Unfortunately, missing from the group, a key member on most of Vega's material, Ray's longtime collaborator cookin' alto saxophonist Bobby Porcelli was unable to join the group. Porcelli's ax and pen are always active if Vega has anything to say about it.

Atalita who hails from the island of Curacao, is a diamond in the rough (this cat is bad!). His at once gentle, at once aggressive phrasing and use of tremolos provide a quite refreshing whole. Late in the performance he broke out some break-neck agility that I would put right next to Michel Camilo as far as technique goes. When I approached him after the show I asked him where he's been all these years, he replied, "I'm mostly a sideman...you know...it takes a lot...a certain personality to do what Ray does." That it does. A little fun fact about Igor—he was roommates with another pianist who you may have heard of during their days together as students at the Berklee School of Music—Danilo Perez.

The bassist, in addition to playing with Paquito D'Rivera and Ray Barretto's New World Spirit, is apparently a legit cat. He has played principal bass in such well-respected orchestras as La Orquesta Ciutat de Barcelona, the Orchestra of St. Luke's and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. But you might not have known it from his mastery of the jazz idiom, which he demonstrated all night. His unaccompanied solos were especially demonstrative of his superb time and his classical sensibilities and sensitivities showed notably his use of harmonics and bowing technique.

Only soloing once, drummer Adam Weber showed his worth ably holding the band together through the set with skillful stickwork. Weber's brilliance on set is easily compared to Steve Berrios or even Horacio 'El Negro' Hernandez (minus the crazy hair and flamboyant shiny silk and nylon outfits). Weber balances freelance work in New York City with his day gig as a public school music teacher in Scarsdale, NY. He is the godfather to Ray's 16-year-old "nightmare"

And finally Steve Kroon, a native of Queens rounded out the quintet providing subtle color on the congas. Often trading off in call-and-response fours and eights with the trumpeter, Vega egged the conguero on for more fire like Tito used to do with his sidemen. Vega alerted the audience to Kroon's impressive resume in the jazz, Latin jazz, and R&B worlds as having appeared with individuals from mainstream acts like Luther Vandross and David O'Rourke to jazz legends Ron Carter and David "Fathead" Newman.

The highlight was of course Vega. One minute he is milking the flugel for all its' worth, stretching out its brooding thickness and the next, he is playing that hard-edged, brassy, in-your-face New York trumpet style. And when he isn't playing his horn or cracking jokes, he makes good use of himself as an auxiliary percussionist—always with a guiro or cowbell or clave sticks in hand, adding to the rhythmic fire that puts the "Latin" in Latin jazz.

Last I checked, Squeeze, Squeeze was in the Jazzweek Top 20 in terms of radio airplay, which doesn't really mean much these days. But it does tell you that jazz DJs who know their shit are trying to get the same message across as I am. Next time you're at a record store and you have a hankering for some hot Latin jazz trumpet don't immediately buy the first Arturo CD you find. Give Ray Vega a chance. If you're in New York, ask around and you're almost sure to find Ray somewhere in the clubs (try Kavehaz on Wednesday nights).

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