Truth to tell, holding your drop party at A Place For Jazz is a pretty gutsy move. The crowds that attend the annual series contain some of the best-educated jazz fans in the region, and you have the late Butch Conn – and all who those who maintain his legacy – to thank for that. In short, APFJ-goers know the real thing when they see it… and have limited patience for anything less. So even though Sensemaya is “from the neighborhood,” pianist Dave Gleason’s fuel-injected octet would have to swat any pre-show butterflies and just come strong, all night long. They did that, and then some.
“E.G.T.S” – the mambo that opens their new album, “Havana Before Dawn” – is an acronym for “Esos Gringos Tienen Swing,” which translates to “These Gringo’s Have Some Swing!” It may be self-deprecating humor, but the tune itself is a great tone-setter, and that’s why Sensemaya used its warm, spicy goodness to kick off the first set. Tim Williams’ alto sax may have been low in the mix to start, but his fiery intention was more than evident, and the harmony he made with horn player Pete Giroux was absolutely sublime. Gleason’s first solo was right on the mark, as lively and percussive as the foundation coming from bassist Erik Johnson and Sensemaya’s three-headed “drum corps.” A quick look around the Whisperdome revealed nodding heads, shaking shoulders and smiles that only come from the knowledge that a real good time is coming this way.
From there, the group gave the Afro-Cuban treatment to the standard “Beautiful Love,” before vocalist Walter Ramos made Ryan Lukas’ lost-love ballad “A Donde Se Fue El Fuego” live and breathe. When Ramos sings, he’s not just singing; he’s telling a story that he is a part of, and with that comes a level of commitment you simply don’t get from your garden-variety vocalist. (Lookin’ at YOU, Jane Monheit!) Ramos preceded the bubbling “Un Jibarito Cantando Son” with a super-fast lesson on the musical relationship between Cuba and Puerto Rico, and he broke us all up with his admission that his ballad “Esos Labios No Son Tuyos (Those Lips Don’t Belong to You)” came out of an episode of “typical Latin machismo.” There may be “better” singers than Ramos, but nobody is as real.
The same (but different) thing goes for Gleason. The Capital Region is blessed with some amazing keyboardists, each with his or her own distinctive voice. But while all excel at the technical level, none of them have the sense of fun that Gleason displays. He’s definitely got chops of his own – as he displayed on the elegant, in-the-clear meditation he played before the Mongo Santamaria classic “Sofrito” – but every one of Gleason’s solos transmits the undeniable sense that he is having BIG fun! Most of that goes to his personality, which is as bright and positive as you can get, but I think some of it can be ascribed to plying his trade while sitting next to the father/son act of conguero Tony Garcia Jr. and percussionist Tony Garcia Sr. My advice to anyone going to their first Grateful Dead concert was, “If all else fails, just watch the drums.” Nothing was failing on this night, but it was hard not to watch the expert work of the Garcias even when someone else was soloing. And when the father-and-son team did get to solo (as Senior did on Duke Ellington’s “Caravan”, and Junior did on “La United Fruit Co.”), the joy and the love was as strong as the power and precision they both brought to their craft.
Sensemaya served up two sets of muscular Latin jazz that only got more pumped up when Big Soul Ensemble trombonist Ben O’Shea joined Williams and Giroux on the front line. Although that made the band a nonet, it was still half the size of the orchestras many Latin players seem to need in order to do this music “properly.” “Havana Before Dawn” puts the lie to that truism. As good as the music from Sensemaya’s first disc “Shake It!” was, the cultural link to “Havana” gives their new music an additional level of authenticity that takes it from a show to a cultural experience… and they do it with fewer moving parts! This was a great evening, but most importantly, it was a fun evening. And as Dave Cowens correctly observed, “If it’s not fun, why do it?”
Review by J Hunter
Photographs by Albert Brooks
Additional photographs by Rudy Lu
Additional photographs by Rudy Lu at Albany Jazz