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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.

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