By Devon Wendell
It was a beautiful, perfect, sunny California day in Beverly Hills for the first of 2012’s free Playboy Jazz Festival community concerts, featuring two diverse acts. One demonstrating the bright future of jazz to come, the other celebrating the musical legacy of one of the most influential artists and composers in the history of Latin Jazz.
The first was the Beverly Hills High School Jazz Band, carefully conducted by Bill Bradbury. Their set consisted of big band covers of classics by such diverse artists as Herbie Hancock, Dean Martin, and Miles Davis. It was refreshing to see these teens put their own spin on the show opener, Michael Sweeney’s jelly roll blues “Hog Squeelin’, Rip-Snortin’, Belly Achin’ Blues,” Dean Martin’s hit Mambo-swing “Sway,” and Miles Davis’s blues-bop anthem “Four.” Young trumpeter Jac Won Chung soloed with a mature sense of taste, space, and soul on all of these numbers.
Alto sax player Jason Lee was also quite impressive with his bluesy solo on The Freshmen Classic “Traces,” which was certainly an interesting ballad for a big jazz band to tackle. And it was the choice of such covers that made this set most interesting, especially the band’s reading of Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit.” On this jazz/electro- funk classic, tuba player Young Jung, and the trombone section featuring; Eric Frazer, Juliana Jones, and Tommy Marcus playing tight, syncopated bass lines with bassist Julius Kim, mimicking Hancock’s keyboard effects on the original recording. Lead guitarist Omid Shamoil served up a distorted Jeff Beck lead here with plenty of teenage angst in every lick.
The Beverly Hills High School Jazz Band wasn’t perfect. At times they’d go out of tune, but it was obvious by the look on their faces that this was due to nervousness and who could blame them? Despite a few flaws, these kids showed a lot of promise, dedication, and joy.
Headlining the show was a carefully hand-picked band paying tribute to Afro-Cuban Jazz legend Mongo Santamaria with a presentation titled Mongorama. KJAZZ musical director and band leader for the popular Jazz On The Latin Side All Stars, Jose Rizo seemed to instinctively know the perfect musicians for this project. Their 2011 album, Mongorama, was nominated for a Grammy.
The eight-piece band, led by Rizo, consisted of: Danilo Lozano, flute and musical director; Justo Almario, tenor sax; Oscar Hernandez, piano; Dayren Santamaria (no relationship to Mongo), violin; Alfredo Ortiz, congas; Christian Moraga, timbales; Jonathan Pintoff, bass; and Fermin Sifontes, lead vocals.
The band’s set consisted of Santamaria classics like “Bacoso,” and “Palo Mayombe,” as well as a band original “Asi Es La Vida,” all featuring amazing solos by Lozano and especially Almario. Even with Almario’s hard-bop influence, he and the other soloists never got away from the song’s thematic melodies for a second, a rare qualities these days. It was also apparent that Rizo and his band were intent on staying within the Cuban tradition of charanga, which made dance music popular in the ‘40s and also incorporated European instruments such as the violin. Rizo introduced the various soloists and give the history of the music between each number.
Unfortunately most of the set was plagued by a low vocal mic, making Sifontes almost totally inaudible. But the raw power of the band made up for this, especially the traditional Afro-Cuban rhythms laid down by Ortiz and Moraga. Those rhythms made it impossible for the audience not to get up and dance.
The set’s highlight was their rendition of Mongo Santamaria’s “Gaujira At the Blackhawk.” Hernandez held down the rich melody line and his solos had a dynamic and imaginative quality that often brought to mind the stylings of Eddie Palmieri. Dayren Santamaria’s violin solo was fluid yet percussive, melodic, and the most amazing example of virtuosity of the entire show. This was truly an inspirational moment that even left the other band member’s jaws dropping. Her violin would weave in and out of the rhythms effortlessly while adding her own layered harmonies without missing a step. From her performance on this composition alone, Santamaria is certainly a brilliant talent to check out, if you haven’t already.
The band closed the show with “Que Maravilloso,” and Mongorama original “Tin Marin.” Sifontes was able to overcome the mic problems by belting out a vocal performance that showed off his smooth and traditional vocal style. It felt as if the band surrendered blissfully to the beautiful and hypnotic rhythms and all swapped brief solos, never giving into self- indulgence. Every note served the song and style.
The long timbale solo on “Tin Marin” really got the few Beverly Hills wallflowers on their feet. Hernandez locked in with Pintoff’s bass in a way that seemed as if they had ESP. Almario and Lozano played hooks on just tenor sax and flute that sounded like an entire brass section, which was nothing short of brilliant. The show ended in a thunderous blaze of percussion and smiles.
Both The Beverly Hills High School Jazz Band and Jose Rizo’s Mongorama performed sets dedicated to the jazz history of many cultures with soul and knowledge and most importantly, fun. Which was the perfect announcement and the greatest way to usher in the 34th annual Playboy Jazz Festival.