By Michael Katz
Early on in the first set of Saturday night’s show at the Greek Theater, a tall blond woman stood up in the front row and began swaying to the music, as if channeling the ghost of Paul Gonsalves. She may have been on to something, as stellar sax work was in the offing at this Second Annual Latin Jazz Fest. And if it didn’t match exactly the historic impact of 1956 at Newport, it was certainly an evening of high energy entertainment.
New York trumpeter Charlie Sepulveda opened the show with his Turnaround band, featuring Norberto Ortiz on tenor sax. Sepulveda’s first few numbers had a hard-edged East Coast groove, accented by the Latin rhythms of his percussion section. He started with Lee Morgan’s “Something Cute,” then moved on to “Retrospective,” with a muted, Miles Davis-type tone, matched by Ortiz’s solid work on the lower registers of his horn. An upbeat, Puerto Rican tinged version of Stevie Wonder’s “Don’t You Worry About A Thing” was followed by a Tito Puente ballad, “Si Tu Sabes”, with lovely solo work in the mid-tone range by Sepulveda.
The highlight of the first set was the introduction of conga legend Giovanni Hidalgo. Bursting onto the stage with a white pullover and white knit cap, Hidalgo was sui generis. As he began an extended solo on his multi-piece conga set, the rest of the band stood aside, like the Lakers clearing out a lane for Kobe Bryant. The panoply of tones and rhythms he was able to coax out of the poly-toned congas, sans anything but his hands, was a wonder. Eventually the band, now a septet, with actor Andy Garcia sitting in on bongos, rejoined the fray and brought the first set home with more energetic soloing by Sepulveda and Ortiz.
Dave Samuel’s Caribbean Jazz Project followed, with special guest Paquito D’Rivera on alto sax and clarinet. For Southern California Latin jazz fans weaned on Cal Tjader’s legacy, it was a more percussive sound, teeming with poly-rhythmic bursts, but equally rewarding. Samuels plays both vibes and marimba; rather than carrying the melodic lead, he emphasized Caribbean rhythms that augmented the fine solo work of D’Rivera. The sound was bolstered by the scintillating steel drum of Liam Teague, and by veteran bassist Lincoln Goines.
The opening number, “Calinda”, established the bona fides of everyone in the band, before moving on to some more familiar tunes. Oliver Nelson’s “Stolen Moments” gave D’Rivera a chance to stretch out on the alto sax, with Samuels backing him with engaging counter-melody work, eventually harmonizing with him on the main theme. “One For Tom” was Samuels’ tribute to Antonio Carlos Jobim, featuring a maracas/clarinet duet that blossomed into beautiful solo work by D’Rivera. The clarinet, which has almost disappeared from mainstream jazz, plays a more prominent role in Latin jazz, and Rivera moves easily between it and the alto sax, often in the same numbers. Steel drummer Liam Teague brought with him a puckish sense of humor that seemed perfect for his instrument. Though it was impossible to match Hidalgo’s burst on the conga set, Teague’s steel panning completed the tropical feel of the Caribbean Jazz Project.
The group ended in a flourish with Thelonius Monk’s “Bemsha Swing.” Adding a Latin feel to a Japanese-based Monk tune might seem like a tall order, but it was perfect logic on this night, with D’Rivera again establishing the boppish line and Samuels meeting him in a rhythmic point and counter-point, capping a terrific performance for this group.
KKJZ’s Jose Rizo brought the collective Jazz On The Latin Side All-Stars to national consciousness a few years ago. The group, with a rotating base of LA area first call musicians, was in especially tight form Saturday. Directed by flutist Danilo Lozano, they played a program of rousing, high energy selections, many from their latest album “Tambolero”. The opening number, “Mama Vieja”, featured new lead vocalist, Cuban émigré Adonis Puentes. Puentes brought the crowd to their feet with several stirring selections, backed by an outstanding rhythm section that featured Joe Rotundi on piano and Marvin “Smitty” Smith on drums. The night’s pattern of outstanding saxophone playing was bolstered by Scott Martin on baritone and reached a crescendo with Justo Almario on tenor, featured on “Justo’s Trane Ride.” Almario, known in some circles as the Latino John Coltrane, lived up to the billing with a blistering, extended tenor solo, backed by the band’s jazz and Latin percussion sections.
The band closed the evening with much anticipated guest artists Hubert Laws on flute and Kenny Burrell on guitar. Again bridging the cultures of jazz and Latin music, they performed Poncho Sanchez’s “Baila Mi Gente” followed by the Dizzy Gillespie standard, “Bebop.” Laws introduced the latter with a cool intro, and the band caught up full force. Both Laws and Burrell are generally heard in quieter, more nuanced settings, but they adapted quite easily to the raucous atmosphere, their enthusiasm translating into lively solo work. A special nod to the oft-maligned folks on the soundboard, who made Laws and Burrell’s solo work clearly audible in front of the large ensemble.
It would have been nice to have heard the band include a ballad for Laws and Burrell, but they were facing time constraints. The concert started about twenty minutes late, and the first two groups played their full allotment, so the JOTLS set was slightly abbreviated. With most of the audience by now joining the enthusiastic dancing of the blonde in the front row, there wasn’t any call to slow the tempo. And it’s a good omen for the future of the Latin Jazz Fest that the audience left wanting more.