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Soul Sauce at Jazz at Pearl's

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Eriksen and Moore are about as singular a unit as you'll find.
The hype of the rebirth and transformation of Jazz at Pearl's in San Francisco has simmered to a cool but the place remains a vibrant jazz venue drawing in powerhouse performers. On March 26, 2004 it welcomed back Soul Sauce, a Latin jazz ensemble that's been gathering steam since 1998. I witnessed the first two of three sets that night and left with a groove in my step. This is the way Latin jazz was meant to be played.

As background, I first heard Soul Sauce at the San Jose Jazz Festival in 2001. Months later I walked past Pearl's and got a dose of Jon Eriksen's sparkling vibe work spilling out onto the sidewalk of Columbus Avenue. Although my first encounter with the group gave me a better chance to study their playing and playlist, both left me with an impression that this group was something special. Last Friday's field trip did nothing to remove that impression. Actually, I'm more impressed than ever.

The song "Soul Sauce" is best remembered as Cal Tjader's breakout hit, a brilliant reworking of Gillespie/Pozo's "Guachi Guara" done Caribbean-style and embroidered with Willie Bobo's splashy call-outs. The group Soul Sauce began as a Tjader cover band and has progressed outward, incorporating straight-ahead jazz and Brazilian influences. The core consists of Jon Eriksen fronting on the vibes and Curt Moore on drums and percussion. With them this night was Rich Kuhns on piano, Michaelle Goerlitz playing congas and percussion, and Rich Gerard on electric bass.

Although not "merely" a Tjader cover band, their playlist reads like a diehard fan's best-of mix tape. "Alonzo", "La Besura", "Viva Cepeda", "Mamblues", "Tanya", and "I Showed Them" are all Tjader pleasers any follower will recognized, and each was faithfully covered this night. Although I didn't stick it out to the last song, I'm positive they closed with the group's namesake complete with Tjader's trademark opening riff.

The first set began with "Freddie the Freeloader", the Kind of Blue standard lightened up with some salsa flare. A bit of confusion in this opening number led to an awkward lull during the solos. As concerned as I was that the group was off-center, it turned out this was just a glitch while they stretched their backs. By the middle of the first set Soul Sauce's machinery was well-oiled, belting out an animated version of "Viva Cepeda" and an equally lively "Los Bandidos". Eriksen and Moore are about as singular a unit as you'll find; Eriksen's frenetic vibe work never strayed too far off and Moore's colorful percussion additions never detracted from the front man's melodies. It's amazing Goerlitz could find any space between these two for a conga solo, but she did, more than a few times, and the crowd loved them all.

Solid in his own right was Kuhn's work. I haven't seen piano playing like this since my hard time — er, upbringing — in the Southern Baptist church, and that's a compliment. When the groove was hard and furious Kuhns attacked the keyboard with both arms out from his sides, almost up from the bench to strike a better advantage over the ivories. Yet during "Alonzo" he produced a solo redolent of Bill Evan and his light touch; Kuhns was thinking hard and on his toes all night long. Gerard's bass playing was up to snuff too, not a small task considering how orchestrated Tjader's bass arrangements were, but I'll always prefer a stand-up to electric in this context. And, to be honest, I wonder how much color a horn could add to this group. A trumpet player with a sense of humility could make Soul Sauce a monster.

The tour de force of the evening was "'Round Midnight". So many bands cover Monk's standard with grave dignity, you'd think it's a funeral dirge. Brilliantly, Soul Sauce re-arranged it into a cha-cha, investing the solemn piece with a bit of spunk. Just prior the group wowed me with their reinterpretation of "Tanya" featuring a great dialogue between Kuhn's accordion and Eriksen's vibes.

(If a pianist strapping on an accordion sounds unusual, know that Eriksen doubles up on the harmonica ; both give the group access to more introspective, methodical material. In fact, where Kuhns attacks the piano, he practically sings through the accordion.)

Soul Sauce has been at it for six years now. Back in 2001 at the San Jose Jazz Festival I heard a solid group playing dependable covers; frankly, a faithful Tjader cover band with some excursions outside the legend's oeuvre. Last night I witnessed the next step in their evolution: gutsy reinterpretations of old standbys and sure-footed stabs at less heard-of pieces. Hopefully Soul Sauce continues to explore.

Visit Soul Sauce on the web at www.site4sound.com .

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