Review and photographs by J Hunter
Additional photograph by Rudy Lu
It’s amazing how substituting one word for another can drastically change the meaning of a phrase. For example, if you change “Pedrito Martinez Group” to “Pedrito Martinez Quartet,” you get a completely different musical experience than the one people got earlier this year at Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival, Mountain Jam and (briefly) the Albany Riverfront Jazz Festival.
While PMG is the groove-based, hip-hop-influenced unit Pedrito Martinez rolls out three nights a week at the midtown-NYC restaurant Guantanamera, the Pedrito Martinez Quartet has a more traditional Afro-Cuban sound that has periodically graced the stage at Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola, the celebrated jazz venue that’s part of Wynton Marsalis’ Jazz @ Lincoln Center empire. This format allows the Cuban-born conguero – and his sensational keyboardist Ariacne Trujillo – to return to the sounds of their native Havana. For his part, Martinez explained that all his musical knowledge was learned on the street, not in a school. “My music is all about folklore,” he told us.
For the same reason the Quartet is more appropriate for Dizzy’s than the Pedrito Martinez Group (Marsalis would have a heart attack if he saw Martinez and his cohorts exhibiting the same dance moves on Dizzy’s stage that they showed off at Albany Riverfront), the Quartet fit APFJ’s traditionalist zeitgeist like a custom-made glove. This group also boasts the services of the mad bass genius John Benitez, whose own group closed out Lake George Jazz Weekend back in September. For this show, Trujillo’s fellow foil would be trumpeter Mike Rodriguez, who consistently bathed the back of the room with clear, bright sounds that always made you smile.
The show went two sets with no formal set list, so neither the audience nor the players knew what was going to happen next. Somebody in the band (usually Trujillo) would play a riff or a phrase, and then Martinez would lay down the beat and off they dove into another pool of Latin goodness. The only pieces that were recognizable to the uninitiated was the wild second-set-opening rave-up of Duke Ellington’s “Caravan” and the delicious deconstruction of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” Trujillo mixed into her in-the-clear break during the first set. The fact is, though, that this group could have played the Schenectady phone book and the crowd still would have howled like mad, because it would have been just as joyous as what we got in the end.
Every piece the Quartet played was long-form, allowing all the players a chance to make their mark. Given the opportunity to show more of her lyrical side than the PMG format allows, Trujillo was an absolute knockout in solo and support, displaying a solid knowledge of classical jazz and a brilliant ability to turn a phrase. Benitez’s trademark smile could have lit up the stage by itself as he kept it phat and funky on Fender while adding his voice to Martinez and Trujillo’s divine harmony. Benitez brought a stand-up double bass, as well, but only played it on the closing number of the first set – a disappointment for me, given that the First Unitarian Society of Schenectady’s Whisperdome is tailor-made for the finesse Benitez can bring to an acoustic format. That being said, he does get points for the show-band spin-move he did with the stand-up during the number’s rousing finish.
(APFJ also gets points for giving Jazz Foundation of America the chance to raise money for NYC-area musicians who got clobbered by Superstorm Sandy. The full house at the Whisperdome was marvelously generous; if you missed the show but would like to help out, too, please go here…)
Martinez was, quite simply, a revelation. While he was certainly no shrinking violet at his Group shows, the Quartet allows Martinez to show every aspect of his talent, particularly his ability to conjure subtleties and shadings that make a song deeper and more meaningful. When he wanted to vary or sharpen his sound, Martinez either pounded the red cajon he used as a stool or hand-drummed the snare that sat to the left of his congas. It was like watching an Olympic gymnast whose physical control is good enough to take every gold medal on the podium, and Martinez was gloriously in his element from start to finish. So were his companions, and the end result put an outstanding cap on another season of A Place For Jazz.