LIVE: Tiempo Libre @ Skidmore College’s Zankel Music Center, 6/6/13

Review by J Hunter

I never thought I’d live to see it, but there it was – dozens of people dancing at the front of the massive stage at Zankel Music Center while the Cuban powerhouse Tiempo Libre blew the place up again and again. And those people had a pretty decent place to get their groove on, too, because the Zankel staff had removed the chairs that usually sit in the orchestra pit, leaving room for an honest-to-God dance floor!

Mind you, I have to think it was self-defense on the part of the Zankel, SPAC and Saratoga ArtsFest, who staged the show as the opening salvo of the fest’s seventh season. Dancing was on the agenda whether there was a place to do it or not: Tiempo Libre may be seen as the leading lights of Timba (a genre that mixes Afro-Cuban with salsa and American R&B), but the now-veteran, three-time Grammy-nominated septet is really just the latest iteration of Cuban dance bands stretching back to when Desi Arnaz was a fresh-faced kid – and the object of the exercise for those groups was to get you out of your seat so you could shake your butt. Tiempo Libre achieved that goal in very short order.

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“Let me tell you something,” SPAC president Marcia White told the crowd, “Tonight you’re going to lose control!” And she was right… on their part and hers, because White was in the pit (as was the current and future executive directors of Saratoga ArtsFest) getting down to it with the rest of the audience. Ten seconds into Tiempo Libre’s flag-waving version of “Guantanamera,” the aisles were literally flooded with people, all of them jonesing to dance in this uncharted territory. A few had obvious salsa-dancing skills, but the rest were just gonna do what they felt, and new TL vocalist Xavier Mili was urging them on when he wasn’t displaying his own slick moves and laser-bright vocals.

Tiempo Libre’s power and musicianship was undeniable. Musical director/frontman Jorge Gomez ran the band through charts that were tighter than a Saratoga alleyway, and both trumpeter Raul Rodriguez and multi-instrumentalist Luis Beltran Castillo were a force when they turned it up to 11. Gomez also showed that classical music has an influence in his thinking (not surprising, given Gomez’s rigorous Russian-esque education at Havana’s School of the Arts) as he played a piece of a Bach sonata and then launched the band into a brilliant track from their 2009 disc Bach in Havana. Gomez told us this night was going to be “a Cuban party,” and that’s what their set was. Smiling faces abounded, both in the audience and on the dance floor.

As much as I admire Tiempo Libre, though, and while the bulk of the crowd had found a new musical style to fall in lust with, the headline for me happened long before the headliners hit the stage.

Tiempo Libre’s backstory talks about seven young Cubanos who reunited on the streets of Miami to make the music they play, and that’s so Hollywood, it’s a wonder nobody’s made a movie about it. But pianist Alfredo Rodriguez’s story is pretty cool, too: It involves showing up at the Texas border with no passport, but he did have a letter from vaunted musical guru Quincy Jones saying he wanted to work with Rodriguez. It took a while, but Rodriguez was finally released and sent on to a career that launched last year with his blinding debut recording Sounds of Space. And if his 45-minute solo-keyboards set is any indication, that disc just scratched the surface of what Rodriguez can do.

Wearing headphones at the outset, Rodriguez used both the house Steinway and a small electric keyboard to set up set up layers of loops that would eventually become the foundation for “Qbafrica,” the opening track from Sounds of Space. From there, Rodriguez expanded the piece upward and outward, throwing as much classical as he did flamenco, as much Rick Wakeman as Michel Camilo, rocking his shoulders and head as he played, a massive smile on his face. There was no rhythm section, no horns, but the piece definitely danced. What’s more, this solo-piano matrix was tailor made for Zankel’s black-belt acoustics.

The amount of thought and control Rodriguez brought to everything he did was utterly jaw-dropping. He showed acres of love for Osvaldo Farres’ “Quizas, Quizas, Quizas,” controlling the energy like his hand was on a rheostat, and his sprawling deconstruction of “Guantanamera” – playing the notes with his right hand at one point, while muffling the strings with his left – made Tiempo Libre’s version seem kind of trite, in retrospect. This wasn’t a situation where the opener outshone the headliner (See “The Black Crowes v. ZZ Top” and “Def Leppard v. Billy Squier”), but Rodriguez brought the crowd to their feet in his own ingenious way.

In that light, Saratoga ArtsFest gets major props for this show, because it touched both aspects of why we respond to art: The aspect that gets your brain bubbling like hot chili, and the aspect that makes you want to jump for joy and dance your ass off.

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