By Michael Katz
The infectious beat of Cuban music has been part of the greater American consciousness since the post-World War II era. Desi Arnaz’s band came into our homes every week in the fifties and sounds from Havana were frequently heard in clubs from Miami to New York. Despite Fidel Castro’s repressive regime and the American boycott, we’ve still managed to maintain contact with the music, tenuous as it may have been until recently. On Wednesday night at the Hollywood Bowl, three generations of musicians presented rousing versions of the Cuban beat, bringing the near capacity crowd to its feet on numerous occasions.
Ninety Miles, the band featuring vibes virtuoso Stefon Harris, trumpeter Christian Scott and tenor saxophonist David Sanchez, kicked off the show with a too-brief set featuring three tunes from their current release of the same name, recorded in Havana with Cuban pianist/composers Rember Duharte and Harold Lopez-Nussa. Harris is first among peers in this group. His percussive licks on the vibes are a surging backdrop to everything that goes on, his solos catching the spirit of the Cuban rhythms. His composition “Brown Belle Blues,” which led off the program, features striking counter rhythms, augmented by conga player Mauricio Herrera and backed up by front-liners Scott and Sanchez.
Scott, playing a horn with the bell tilted up a la Dizzy, has a crisp, clear tone. One of the up and coming young trumpeters, this band is a great vehicle to get him in front of larger audiences. “E’Cha,” was one of four tunes on Ninety Miles, the CD, composed by the Cuban pianists – this one by Lopez-Nussa, with Zaccai Curtis effectively taking over the piano chair for this concert. “And This Too Shall Pass,” another Harris composition, closed the set, allowing Harris to again set a rhythmic pace and build a solo on top of it, with Sanchez contributing his own robust sound. In a set this short, someone was bound to draw the short straw and it was Sanchez, who never quite got the opportunity to get going. Check out his ballad-like composition “The Forgotten Ones” on the CD to fully appreciate his contribution to this group.
Arturo Sandoval is one of the true home run hitters on the trumpet. His soaring flights into the horn’s upper register bring to mind Maynard Ferguson and Dizzy Gillespie, the latter being his main stylistic influence. His LA All-Star band rounded up some familiar names like Brian Scanlon on tenor sax, trombonist Andy Martin and trumpeter Wayne Bergeron. And of course the rhythm section sparkled with Johnny Friday and Joey De Leon Jr on drums and congas. “Funky Cha Cha” got the group started, with some fine piano work by Wally Minko and Sandoval’s blazing horn, augmented by his doubling on timbales.
Natalie Cole joined the band for an impassioned “Besame Mucho.” Ms. Cole is clearly a Bowl favorite; she has had to cancel some recent appearances for health reasons and if not quite up to her old self, she was still in fine voice. Her rendition of her father’s “Quizas” was a reminder of the influence Havana had on American music before the curtain dropped and what we have missed in between. Sandoval reclaimed center stage for “Cerezo Rosa,” blasting off into the stratosphere, with actor Andy Garcia sitting in on congas.
Sandoval then introduced a trio of guitarist/singers known as the Manolo Kings, who led the band through two spirited numbers, “Taki Taki” and “Tahitiana.” The band’s closing number just about blew the dome off the stage. “Mambo Caliente” featured sizzling work on alto by Rusty Higgins, the expected trombone excellence from Andy Martin, Sandoval, of course, backed up his trumpet section and a rousing piano solo from Minko. It was all pulsating, the audience up on their feet. If there was ever a time for an encore before intermission, this would have been it.
The Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club, originally brought to our attention by Ry Cooder, is by now an established cultural franchise, in much the same way that the Preservation Hall Jazz Band represents New Orleans. The personnel has changed over the years, though plenty of traditional voices remain. At the heart is vocalist Omara Portuondo, who came out mid-set, but perhaps equally important is Barbarito Torres, who plays the laud, a pear-shaped guitar with a distinctive tone somewhat like a mandolin, but with a ringing quality. Torres set an energetic tone from the start. Musical director, trombonist and vocalist Jesus Aguaje Ramos directed the band through a half dozen spirited numbers, including one trombone vamp around “As Time Goes By.” The early tunes featured one of the group’s standard bearers, Guajiro Mirabel on trumpet, as well as vocals by Idania Valdes. One of the best of the younger players was pianist Rolando Luna, who follows the lineage of stellar Havana pianists Chucho Valdez and Gonzalo Rubalcabo.
The highlight, of course, was the entrance of Omara Portuondo. She is a dynamo, her voice sprightly and full of drama, still able to capture the upper octaves. With a little English and a lot of panache, she communicated easily with the Bowl audience, charging through a quartet of numbers before delighting the crowd with her version of “Summertime.” Her Havana inflections only seemed to underline the poignancy of the lyrics, causing the audience to listen to them as if for the first time. Again, Rolando Luna provided lovely accompaniment.
All in all it was an invigorating evening, hopefully auguring a terrific future for the music along with honoring the icons of its past.
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