Summer means one thing to the jazz world – the return of several festivals around the country, showcasing a variety of artists, including Latin Jazz musicians. These events take many shapes and sizes; some cover several days while others employ a number of different musicians throughout the course of one day. Many of these summer events take advantage of the beautiful weather and place the artists (and audience) under the sun. In many cases, these festivals evolve into parties that include food vendors, artists, music business people and more. These events serve as the highpoint of my summers, and I regularly look forward to my local events.
This past Sunday, I had the good fortune to attend the Latin Jazz on the Green event as part of the Healdsburg Jazz Festival. This outdoor event featured a day of fantastic music from Pete Escovedo’s Latin Jazz group, featuring John Santos, and Eddie Palmieri’s Latin Jazz Sextet. The event was held in Healdsburg’s Recreation Park, a good-sized field set in the midst of a residential neighborhood. The concert opened with a short salsa dance lesson, moving directly into a long set from Escovedo. After a brief intermission, Palmieri stormed the stage with an extended set full of energy and excitement. The opportunity to hear a legend in a small setting made for a great day.
In the past, I’ve held a mixed opinion about Pete Escovedo’s work. He holds an important place in Bay Area Latin Jazz history, and the whole scene owes him a debt of gratitude. He was one of the early players on the scene, and he holds a good deal of knowledge about the music. His playing often reflects this background, and he brings a straight-ahead intensity to his work. At the same time, many of his releases have leaned towards smooth jazz, often ignoring the music’s rich heritage. These releases seemed focused more on sales than artistic integrity, and they just didn’t sit well with me. Unfortunately, Escovedo’s smooth jazz sound stayed with me, and I’ve (too) often overlooked his work.
For the most part, Escovedo stayed on the straight-ahead Latin Jazz path during his performance and allowed his musicians to stretch out on a variety of standards. He featured Roger Glenn on vibraphone during a rousing rendition of the Tito Puente tune “Philadelphia Mambo.” As the band continued to warm-up, they jumped into a stirring version of Claire Fischer’s “Morning.” Glenn switched to flute here, providing a strong solo, and pianist Murray Low pushed the band with montunos and a strong improvisation. Unfortunately, the sound was horribly mixed during these songs, so despite strong performances from the musicians, the overall experience felt uneven.
Escovedo dipped into his smooth jazz side momentarily with an extended bossa nova that swayed calmly, but never reached an interesting momentum. The piece primarily featured guitarist Ray Obiedo, who played a repetitive melody aside Escovedo’s vocal, and indulged in a long and meandering solo. Bassist Curtis Ohlson attempted to liven the song with an enthusiastic improvisation, but at that point, the group had faded into a monotone loop. Glenn fell into the smooth jazz dungeon with a lyrical soprano sax solo that oozed sweet melodies. This song reflected the pop culture sheen that too often covers Escovedo’s recordings.
The group avoided the zombie-like state of smooth jazz monotony for the rest of the show, bringing a number of high-energy pieces into the performance. They performed a Glenn original mambo that featured Glenn back on flute and an enthusiastic timbale solo from Escovedo. The group ended their set with a strong I-IV-V descarga that featured multiple soloists and vocals from Escovedo and Glenn. The concert reached a high point with a powerful improvisation from Santos, who displayed his knowledge of history and his ability to light a fire beneath a band. These songs caught the excitement of live performance and linked Escovedo with the crowd.
In many ways, Escovedo’s performance refocused my opinions about his work, and showed me that his roots establish the foundation of his style. His performance of standards really expressed an authentic approach often lacking in his smooth jazz. He did a short lapse into smooth jazz territory, but fortunately, it only lasted for one song. His band featured some of the Bay Area’s best Latin Jazz musicians, creating an exciting vibe onstage. The sound person never quite cued in Escovedo mix, leaving the audience unsatisfied for most of the set. Still, I found Escovedo’s set exciting, and it will most likely lead me to revisit his work.
Palmieri brought a dream group for the festival performance, which showcased some of the best musicians in Latin Jazz today. Jose Claussell, a favorite of mine from his work on Palmieri’s Palmas, covered the timbales, and Johnny Rivero played congas. Luques Curtis proved that the future of Latin bass playing rests in young and skillful hands. I discovered Curtis last year through his group Insight and their album A Genesis, a powerful collection of modern Latin Jazz. The two musicians that define Palmieri’s current Latin Jazz work, Brian Lynch and Conrad Herwig, completed the group, ensuring creative solos throughout the set. The powerhouse group entered the set with a strong momentum that lasted well into their long concert.
The group focused upon material from Palmieri’s Latin Jazz work from the past 15 years, with a good deal of pieces from the Palmas album. They presented an uplifting version of “Palmas” that rode full steam for close to ten minutes. Lynch, Herwig, and Palmieri all took impressive solos; after many years of performance, their improvisations still explored the changes and sought creative ways to manipulate the harmony. The group drove the cha cha cha “Slowvisor” into a frenzy, playing upon the song’s bluesy nature and rhythmic intensity. Curtis took a particularly inspiring solo here, displaying the influence of both Cachao and Andy Gonzalez with his percussive lines. The tense “You Dig” provided lots of opportunities for the group to engage in ferocious interplay that played upon the song’s general intensity. While many of these songs were recorded years ago, Palmieri’s group attacked them like fresh meat, exerting a contagious energy.
The sound issues continued to plague Palmieri’s group, an unfortunate theme that defined the majority of the day. The first half of the set contained an uneven sound, with Lynch and Herwig sometimes disappearing completely behind a wall of sound. The sound crew eventually reached a somewhat balanced sound, but they never quite attained a proper mix. Building a good sound for a Latin band presents considerable challenges for a sound crew not experienced in the genre; in the future, I hope that the Healdsburg festival considers the unique nature of Latin Jazz when hiring a sound crew for this type of event. The amazing opportunity to hear Palmieri’s group in a small outside venue remained thrilling due to the actual performance, but the lack of adequate sound support lessened the event’s impact.
I’ve been a huge Palmieri fan for many years, and his performance at the Healdsburg Jazz Festival simply reaffirmed my faith in his Latin Jazz approach. He stands as a legend in Latin music, and after years of experience, he understands how to squeeze every ounce of tension from the music’s polyrhythmic foundations. At the same time, Palmieri holds legitimate credentials as a serious jazz musician; his harmonic concept both follows tradition and displays a personal approach, while his improvisatory explorations continually search for new directions. He surrounds himself with outstanding musicians, and he constantly brings out their best qualities as jazz musicians and performers in the Latin tradition. Palmieri exemplifies the best of Latin Jazz and his performance in Healdsburg once again proved this claim.
Are you checking out some great Latin Jazz at a festival this summer? Want to tell us about it? Do you have pictures from the event? Leave a comment or contact me and I’d love to post something about it – summer festivals provide so many opportunities for live Latin Jazz, let us know what you’re checking out!