By Devon Wendell
In honor of Hispanic heritage month amd RBI (Reviving Baseball in the Inner cities), the first annual La Vida Music Festival, held at the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre Sunday, was a fun filled evening, celebrating the rich heritage of Latin and Brazilian jazz with an eclectic blend of new and legendary artists. Hosting the show was comic Mike Marino, along with KJazz DJ and Music Director, Jose Rizo.
Kicking off the first act of of festivities, the all-female Mariachi Ellas Son, seemed well versed in the roots of mariachi music, despite their overtly modern appearance. Though the band only performed one number, each of the group members made her presence known, especially the graceful and soulful violin stylings of Rocio Marron.
Next up, tenor saxophonist Robert Kyle and his Brazilian Band. Kyle chose material from his latest album, Bossalicious. Kyle’s warm tone, a Coleman Hawkins-esque vibrato, combined with the exceptional guitar work by Roberto Montero, made for an interesting blend of smooth jazz and Brazilian bossa bova. Percussionist Cristiano Novelli and bassist Hussain Jiffry added tasteful and dynamic rhythms that complimented Kyle’s fusion perfectly. On the Coltrane piece “Nature Boy,” Kyle’s tone and phrasing invoked that of the original recording, especially via the chemistry with Novelli, whose Elvin Jones like percussion pushed the tenorist to stretch out further. Kyle’s rendition of “Orfeo Negro” (“Black Orpheus”) was the most powerful performance of his brief set. Switching to flute, he began the piece a capella, with the band joining in – at precisely the right moment — with a slow and seductive Oliver Nelson-meets-Jobim ambiance. Throughout the set, Montero’s acoustic guitar work roved through blues, jazz, and Brazilian influences in a refreshingly original manner, sometimes almost upstaging the fine work of the Kyle band.
Although the performance of Grammy-nominated singer Chris Bennett was steeped in Latin roots and backed by the powerful rhythm team of pianist Frank Zotolli, bassist Kenny Gray and percussionist Oliver Brown, she seemed at times to be trying a little hard, while lacking some of the authenticity of the other artists on the roster. Despite that, Bennett’s strongest performance came via her interesting take on Consuela Valazquez’s classic “Besame Mucho.” She ended her set with Jorge Ben’s “Mas Que Nada,” suggesting the flair of the hit versions by Sergio Mendes and Al Jarreau, despite some slap bass playing from Kenny Gray that seemed forced and mismatched with the rest of the rhythm section.
Percussionist virtuoso Chalo Eduardo began the second half of the program with an all percussion bossa niova piece. Eduardo delivered a powerful and fascinating performance, masterfully playing the cuika, the pandeiro and the tambourine with boundless energy and enthusiasm. Joined by Jorge Bermudez and Munyungo Jackson on congas, Michael Duffy on drums, and Hector Torres on percussion Eduardo and his gang incorporated whistles, polyrhythmic grooves, and exciting stage hi-jinks (including juggling the tambourine and playing it with his knees) which made this the finest performance of the evening up to that point.
The show’s headliner, Louie Cruz Beltran, was joined by an all-star big band that also featured the great Hubert Laws on flute and Beltran’s mentor and comrade, the legendary Pete Escovedo on timbales. Beltran’s showed warmth and a delightful sense of humor, attacking his timbales with soulful precision on “Samba Lady” from his 2006 album It’s My Time. His mastery of his percussion was awe inspiring, overflowing with the sense of joy that this music is all about. Add to that his warm, relaxed, always convincing vocals.
The horn section locked into the rhythm with powerfully punctuated salsa hooks, and Hubert Laws’s masterful flute stylings affirmed his capacity to enhance any genre of music with his sweet, fast and precise solos. Among the other soloists, Mike Daigeau’s frenetic trombone work also stood out as he swapped fiery solos with Laws and trumpeter Mike McGuffey.
Pete Escovedo was given a justifiably warm welcome when le humorously tossing Beltran’s drum sticks into the audience. Wearing dark shades, he hammered furiously, with a more aggressive style than Beltran, proving that at 74, he hasn’t lost a beat as the pair launched into Ray Barretto’s “La Curia,” aided by the stellar precious work of Chalo Eduardo. Together, they created muti-layered rhythms and true originality, clearly having fun and loosening up with each number.
“Timbalero” also had Beltran and Escovedo going head to head, with Laws accenting the backing vocals of Mark Miller and Bonnie Bowden. Escovedo also spoke with pride and nostalgia of the father of Latin jazz, Tito Puente, introducing the master’s composition “Ran, Kan Kan.” Watching Escovedo, Laws and Beltran working side by side was both a pleasure and a striking change of pace from the much more relaxed opening set, and the occasionally over the top humor of Marino.
For the grand finale, Escovedo took center stage, and — in memory of his brother Coke — performed their hit “Whatca Gonna Do.” As the conga line moved in front of the stage, each soloist let loose, with exceptional work by the brass section, as the party roared to a thunderous conclusion. Appropriately, the energy level was at its highest peak in this unforgettable evening of Latin swing, jazz and soul, solidly affirming that the La Vida Music Festival has arrived with a big bang.
To read other reviews and commentary by Devon Wendell click here.