Eddie Palmieri and Pete Escovedo at The Healdsburg Jazz Festival

by chip on June 4, 2008

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.

Pete Escovedo

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.


Eddie Palmieri

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!

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Chazro June 4, 2008 at 11:24 am

Wazzup Chip! Pleased to see mention of the Escovedo Clan, although surprised that you’d catergorize him as a ‘smooth’ artist. I would argue that in the interest of paying the bills and putting food on the table artists from Miles to the Breckers have all made ‘questionable’ decisions that I always like to think were made for financial considerations. That said, Pete E. needs to stop with the radio-friendly attempts before it’s too late, some might argue that it IS too late. Hey, redemption is ONE solid record away!!;)

In case there’s anybody reading that doesn’t know the facts, the Escovedo family is simply put; a west coast latin music dynasty. My 1st memory of the name was linked to Santana and Coke Escovedo back in the early ’70′s. I always associated his name with the Jazzier aspects of the Santana music scene seeing his name on Luis Gasca and Azteca’s records. AAAHHHH Azteca, before Irakere and Batacumbele there was Azteca, a seminal band featuring many players that are still creating great music to this day. Azteca is the link to the communal west coast Latin Jazz scene, from Aztecas loins sprung forth the Escovedo Clan, in particular Pete & Shiela E., and the John Santos Clan. In truth, it’s all ONE big happy family as looking at the credits from ANY of their albums reveals that they share many, many of the same musicians and have for decades! The essential Pete E. latin jazz records:

Pete & Shiela E – ‘Solo Two’ AND ‘Happy Together’ – These 2 records were made under the guidance and production of Billy Cobham. They also joined HIS band during this period and can be heard on a number of his records. Nothing has ever been written (to my knowledge) about the tremendous influence Cobham has had on Shiela E.’s drumming technique. She was a youngster thrown into the deep end of the pool during this period and man did she ever learn how to swim!! Throughout her solo career, her stint with Prince, and especially when she plays with her father, the Cobham ‘feel’ is ever-present. Fact is, although she’s never mentioned as a drummer, the lady plays her ass off!! One of the great Latino-style drummers playing today. ‘Solo Two’ & ‘Happy Together’ have been released as a twoferone on Fantasy that’s an absolute score!!

Pete Escovedo released ‘Yesterday’s Memories Tomorrow’s Dreams’, a live record that has an extended ‘Azteca’ medly that slams the point home about this band’s roots. He also released ‘Mister E’, a solid Big-Band Latin Jazz project ala the Machete Ensemble or Bobby Sanabrias’ Big Band projects. Also released as a twofer on Fantasy that makes it a solid score!!

Lastly, ‘Pete Escovedo-Live!’, released in 2003 is the last record I own by Mister E. A smokin’ Big-Band Latinjazzfest that is a perfect testament to his legacy and musical excitement. Do the names; Arturo Velasco, Wayne Wallace, Justo Almario, Joe Rotundi, Shiela E., Mark & Paul Van Wageningen, etc., ring any bells? They’re all part of, what I like to call, the West Coast Latin Jazz commune. Between the Escovedo projects, the Santos projects, Jose Rizo projects, and the various solo projects (which could be a topic in and of itself!). These guys manage to keep themselves busy with, and this is essential, superior quality recordings. The throw-aways are the ‘smooth-ish’ stuff put out by Pete E. and Roy Obeido which is where I began….sorry for the length of my rant, but I felt it important to point out (to the uninitiated) that to dismiss Pete E. as simply a ‘smoothie’ would be a mistake.

chip June 5, 2008 at 7:39 am

Chazro – you’ve got some great points here, thanks for bringing this up – Pete Escovedo has been an essential piece of the Bay Area Latin Jazz scene for a long time, and he certainly deserves credit for that. I hope that the article didn’t write him off as a nobody, that certainly wasn’t my intention. He has made some solid, influential Latin Jazz that shaped the Bay Area scene – all the major names that we know as today’s artists – John Santos, Rebeca Mauleon, Wayne Wallace, John Calloway, and more – they all went through Escovedo’s band. Without him, the Bay Area Latin Jazz scene would be a very different place; its a pretty hip scene, and I’m proud to be able to check it out on a regular basis.

Your thoughts on Shiela E. are so true – she’s a pretty amazing percussionist. I remember seeing Willie Colon here at a Bay Area club – great show by the way – and Pete and Shiela were in the audience checking it out. At one point, Colon invited them up to sit in. Pete passed, but Shiela joined the band for a descarga. She went through congas, timbales, drum kit, and bongo, and pretty much blew all of Colon’s players off the stage. It was an incredible display of musicianship, and one that I remember vividly years later. I’ve never really made that connection with Cobham; I do remember her being a part of that group, but the influence that he brought to her drumming – that’s an interesting point. I saw Cobham recently, what an amazing drummer . . . I’m going to have revisit the albums from that era.

With that much said, I do have to say that I have been very put off by Escovedo’s smooth jazz material. We all do have bills to pay (I understand that one!), but those albums are all pretty bad. I think that these days, he could make a return to heavier, more interesting music, and I think that it would sell well. Today’s music world is so based upon niches that I think a heavy Escovedo Latin Jazz project would find a major market in our Latin Jazz community. I’m hoping that he moves in that direction.

Despite the smooth stuff, I really do believe that Pete should be remembered for his influential role, not his weaker smooth jazz. I feel ashamed to say that I haven’t gotten to this feature yet here at LJC – I’m quite proud of the Bay Area’s Latin Jazz legacy, and I’d like to support that here. You’ve once again sparked a fire for me – I think a deeper look at the Escovedo material will need to be a part of this summer’s menu at LJC. It’s long overdue, and I don’t think enough has been said. I’ve got some work to do!

Thanks for the great info Chazro, once again, your presence here is invaluable!

Chazro June 5, 2008 at 1:20 pm

Aw shucks Chip, ya makin’ me blush!;) Thx for the kind words, as always, my thx go to YOU for providing this forum.

I won’t bore you with how deep my appreciation of Billy Cobham is or how I’ve been listening to him 4ever, let’s just say I’m a fan, a BIG fan! The 1st 2 albums done by Pete & Shiela E. were done by Bilham Cobly productions. He wasn’t allowed (due to contractual restrictions) to have his name on the records so he wasn’t listed in the credits but he’s sitting in the drum chair throughout BOTH sessions. They goof on the situation by having Pete & Shiela in a photo on the back of the record and Billy’s hiding/squatting behind a chair peeking out at the photographer! I could dig out the lp’s but I went to allmusic.com and saw that the 3 records the Escovedo’s played on with Cobham were – ‘Simplicity Of Expression’, ‘Inner Conflicts’, and ‘Magic’. While none of these records were Billy at his peak, I can say that on each of these records there’s MOMENTS….and I was fortunate to have caught the ‘Magic’ band live, they killed!! Anyhow, this little slice of Cobham/Escovedo memorobilia is brought to you by boricuanerds-r-us!!;)

reginald June 6, 2008 at 4:58 am

Just a quick word to set everything in stone. I was surprised to read your thoughts about Pete Escovedo. The “escovedo clan” was probably my first initiation into Latin Jazz, Lord knows how many years back. They had a VHS out, at that time, which I ruined for playing it so often. It was a live concert and that thing blew my mind. I never saw them as smooth jazz players. I do agree, some cuts on their cds ( I got them all) I do skip, but the ones I liked are really uniques. Pete Escovedo, in my simple mind deserves a spot in the Latin Jazz Boardroom, right next to Tito Puente, Eddie Palmieri etc.. … I think he is definitely one of the Greats.

Thanks for your forum

chip June 6, 2008 at 6:27 am

Hey Reginald, thanks for chiming in here! I agree, Pete Escovedo has added a lot to the Latin Jazz scene over the years, and again, I think that he helped shape the lively Latin Jazz scene that we have here in the Bay Area. In my mind, that locks his legacy into the group of important players that defined the style. At the same time, I really do think that he’s made a conscious effort at times to attract a commercial audience with a smooth sound. I wouldn’t write him off as a “smooth jazz” artist, but I have been turned off by these commercial turns. I certainly wouldn’t say this about all his recordings, but there have been moments of smooth playing.

Well, between the great concert that I saw last week and comments from Chazro and Reginald, I’m off to spend some time with the Escovedos. The next couple of weeks are dedicated to digging up all my Escovedo recordings and filling in any gaps in my collection. It’s been far too long since I’ve spent serious time with this stuff, and from everybody’s comments, I’m beginning to feel like I may have missed something. I have to admit that the whole smooth thing turns me off, but I really shouldn’t be avoiding an artist’s whole repertoire because of it. Chazro, you’ll be happy to know that I downloaded Solo Two and Happy Together this morning – those two albums are going to get me to work this morning! I’m going to try to track down those Cobham albums as well. I’ll post something in a couple of weeks once I’ve sorted through all the material . . . until then, keep the Escovedo recommendations coming!

Chazro June 6, 2008 at 12:02 pm

Wazzup Chip! Glad to hear you’re giving the 1st 2 a listen. Tell me the truth, the beginning of track 1 side 1 of Solo 2, ain’t that one of the coolest riffs/tunes ever!!?? The tune then goes into a too-long keyboard solo but the head of that tune……it’s beggin’ for a re-make!!!;).

Reg, that VHS tape is the recording of ‘Yesterdays Memories…..’ The project was done as a series (Jazzvisions??) that released different all-star sessions simultaneously on LP/Cassette, & VHS. I own the CD & LP. This series was a one-shot deal (released a 1/2 dozen or so projects all at once) and never heard from them again, too bad! Years later the recording was released on the CD twofer I mentioned in my earlier post…Hot stuff!! If I’m asked what CD best represents the Escovedos TO ME, I’d go with the 2003 release of ‘Pete Escovedo – Live’.

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