The Bobby Matos Latin Jazz Ensemble at the Saville Theater

Robert Bush BY

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Bobby Matos Latin Jazz Ensemble
Saville Theater, San Diego City College
San Diego, CA
June 29, 2010

Tuesday's concert was another excellent installment in the "Jazz Live" series, promoted and co-sponsored by San Diego City College and one of the few true jazz radio station's left in our country, KSDS Jazz 88. Once a month during the regular school year, (and twice a month in the summer), concerts are held in the acoustically pristine Saville Theater. Visiting artists and concert goers alike are often heard marveling about the pure sound of the room.

The Bobby Matos Latin Jazz Ensemble made the trek down from their home-base of Los Angeles—(even though all but one member of the sextet is originally from New York)—for the gig. At some point in the concert, Matos offered his credo for putting together a group: "Get guys that are all better than you...so you work harder..." True to his word, there weren't any weak links in this working group—all of whom would get their chance to shine on this night.

Mr. Matos himself is a timbalero of special distinction. Born in the Bronx, he started out on congas, studying with Mongo Santamaria until none other than Tito Puente converted him to the timbales. A veteran of countless recordings and performances, he leads his tight aggregate by example. When watching him play, one is struck by his economy of motion: never more movement than necessary to provide the desired effect. Even when the dynamics surged to the highest volume—there was marked absence of the kind of flailing about that some of his contemporaries resort to. He's also quick to point out that this is dance music—indeed the whole band (at least those in standing positions) never stopped moving their feet from side to side.

Anchoring the ensemble was the rock-solid bass playing of John B. Williams, (Nancy Wilson), (Horace Silver). With the absence of a conventional trap-drum-kit, the "heart-beat" pulse so necessary for this music was often the responsibility of Mr. Williams. He didn't disappoint. Another essential time-keeping component was the relentless conga work of 17 year Matos band veteran Robertito Melendez. He saved his solo for the closer, but his hand-drumming was always key to the groove. Rounding out the rhythm section was the remarkable pianist Theo Saunders. Saunders came through San Diego earlier this year as a member of the Henry Franklin Quartet. This man is way under-appreciated. He seems to have forged his style with just the right amount of essential 1960's elements: the power of McCoy Tyner ; the elliptical invention of Herbie Hancock. Mostly, though, it's just the man himself. If you haven't heard him—seek him out.

The horn section in the Matos ensemble deserves special praise. On tenor saxophone and flute is the very creative Pablo Calogero. Another transplanted New Yorker, Mr. Calogero was last seen in San Diego as a member of virtuoso bassist John Lindberg's trio with percussionist Adam Rudolph. It is a testament to his versatility that he was just as compelling a soloist in both instances. Calogero's tone on tenor was supple and warm; his ideas were cutting edge. Trombonist Daniel Weinstein also doubles on the violin— he plays both instruments with equal surety and expertise.

Speaking of Weinstein, the concert began with a reading of his original, "Fiddle-unky" an infectious funk groove with all the Latin trimmings. Matos likes the juxtaposition of Mambo and Charanga rhythms over unexpected material: "Beautiful As The Moon" combined the Latin drumming with a Yiddish folk tune—and somehow, it worked! Calogero was featured in the "Latinized" arrangement of "Monk's Mood." Matos explained that Monk's music was unusually suited to the Afro-Cuban aesthetic. A Calogero original, "Santiagito" followed, and it was something different entirely. It featured a throbbing, hypnotic John B. Williams bass ostinato and another superb tenor solo.

The band continued with an arrangement of the Armando Peraza vehicle: "Monamour Mambo." which ratcheted up the crowd's enthusiasm. Up next was a another "Latinized" jazz original, Herbie Hancock's, "Maiden Voyage." For some reason, this adaptation didn't seem to work as well as some of the others. That didn't appear to faze the standing-room-only audience though. The applause and boisterous 'terms of endearment' grew louder with each passing moment.

The concert drew to a close with the explosive finale, "Bomba de Corazon." This was an expansive treatment featuring extended solos from all—especially Matos and Melendez who engaged in a heated percussion "duel" at the end with fireworks aplenty. The audience erupted and stayed on their feet for several minutes until the lights came up. The musicians, looking like they just ran a marathon (or won a dance contest)—congratulated each other with handshakes and weary, knowing smiles.

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