The acoustically friendly Emerson Auditorium on the Union College campus was comfortably filled with dozens of jazz lovers when Dr. Jose Cruz, the driving force behind Jazz/Latino, Inc., addressed the audience from the stage. In the background, the hearty laughter and friendly banter between the members of the Jazz/Latino All Stars could be heard through an open door. Cruz chuckled and commented tongue-in-cheek to the audience, “They must be having some party back there.”
And they probably were. The first set had revealed glimpses of improvisational brilliance to the audience assembled, but now, during the intermission, the group had a moment to catch their collective breath, chat and laugh together while planning their second set.
There was no pre-determined set list, so what musical rabbits would they be pulling out of their collective hat?
Of course, making it even more interesting was that all of the musicians involved had never played together as an ensemble. Some of them had collaborated with one another before, but never all together. This was new to them. And it was fresh.
Billed as a “Tribute to Mongo Santamaria,” whatever they played had to capture the spiritual essence of the great conguero’s huge contribution to the Latin-jazz idiom.
Right out of the starting gate, trumpet master Ray Vega, trombonist Chris Washburne and sax monster Hilary Noble set the pace by trading frenzied and impassioned solos between themselves on the Temptations classic, “Cloud Nine.”
The trio’s incendiary volleys fuelled pianist Nicki Denner’s relentless attack on the 88s and prompted bassist Jennifer Vincent to pluck, bang or slap the bottom end right out of her instrument.
Song after song, chorus upon chorus, the front line’s notes blazed brightly as they negotiated the melodic hair-pin curves of the ever-changing Latin rhythms laid down by drummer Willie Martinez and percussionist Wilson “Chembo” Corniel.
Each member of the Jazz/Latino All Stars was in the pocket and listening with elephant ears to each other’s musical ideas, changes or lines and reacting to them with a brushfire’s speed.
When the musical fireworks stopped after one encore the mesmerized audience in the Emerson Auditorium knew they had witnessed a rare phenomenon: the naked and raw passion of what is Latin jazz in all its kaleidoscopic, improvisatory splendor. It doesn’t get better than that.
Next up on the Ahora, Latin/Jazz calendar is “The Caribbean Piano in Afro-Cuban Jazz: Tribute to Noro Morales,” a concert featuring Rebecca Cline and Nicki Denner, which will take place at 7:30pm on Friday, June 3 at Union College’s Emerson Auditorium in Schenectady. Admission is $15; students and seniors $5.
Review and photographs by Andrzej Pilarczyk