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The Latin Jazz All Stars at Dazzle


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Latin Jazz All Stars
Denver, CO
January 10, 2019

The All Stars came to town Thursday night and lived up to their name. The Latin Jazz All Stars is an amalgam that periodically organizes and tours with a fluctuating cast of players. A similar conglomeration came through the Denver area almost exactly six years ago. Like Thursday night's group, that band was a sextet and half of the 2013 band returned this year with three new members.

Returning for an encore performance was flutist Nestor Torres, congureo Chembo Corniel and pianist Elio Villafranca. New to the band (at least from the 2013 version) were vocalist Claudia Acuna, drummer Diego Lopez and, as a last minute addition, Bijou Barbosa on bass.

As in 2013, Nestor Torres acted as emcee for the evening. He introduced the band members and the tunes. He also explained the concept of the band. He said they played Latin Jazz, emphasis on the "Jazz." That meant they not only improvised their solos, but he implied they made up everything as they went along. That apparently included the set list too.

The band kicked off the evening with "Memphis Underground," a soul-funk classic from Herbie Mann. As a fellow flautist, Torres no doubt could relate. Claudia Acuña joined in with wordless vocals on the main theme. This cover tune proved once again (as if any more proof is needed at this late date) that pretty much anything jazz related can be Latinized.

Acuña sang about half the tunes, which wasn't enough. She's a delightful and powerful singer. She hales from Chile and has a number of CDs in her own name. A highlight of her singing Thursday night was a tune called "Delirioso" ("Delirious" in English). It was a ballad that let her stretch out and show her vocal range and ladle on heaps of emotion. Another vocal highlight was "It's Over Now" which is Thelonious Monk's "Well You Needn't" with lyrics. Here again, a non-Latin tune got the treatment and came out like a nice car with a new paint job.

One of the bright spots in 2013 was Villafranca on piano whom I was not familiar with at that point. Thursday night his playing was, once again, fiery, intricate and awe inspiring. At one point, Torres concluded a solo with a trill which Villafranca picked up so seamlessly it was difficult to tell that there had been a transition. He kept the trill going with his right hand and started his solo with his left hand alternating chords with single note runs. The band also performed one of his original compositions, "Mambo Bebo," as the second tune of the evening. It was a lively song that strongly emphasized the Latin side of the Latin jazz.

Corniel worked the congas to Latin perfection, providing that steady, syncopated undercurrent necessary for the south of the border sound. In conjunction with Lopez on the trap drums, the two swung the Latin rhythms throughout the evening.

Oddly, in 2013, original drummer Yuri Hevia bailed at the last minute due to illness and was replaced by local drummer Manuel Lopez. This time, bassist Yunior Terry cancelled shortly before the show. Again, the local music scene provided a replacement in the form of Bijou Barbosa who elegantly filled in like he had been a member all along.

The evening concluded with Torres' "Maria Cervantes Suite," a multi-part tribute to Cuban singer, songwriter and pianist of the same name. A fitting closer, the band stretched out for one last excursion with plenty of room for the composer's joyous improvisations.

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