This night saw new interpretations of classic Thelonious Monk and Mongo Santamaria tunes as well as pieces by greats like Chucho Valdez, Wayne Shorter, and originals by the group’s pianist Elio Villafranca.
The evening began with Villafranca’s “Emiliano,” dedicated to Cuban pianist Emiliano Salvador. This piece did a great job of setting the intentions of the evening with the blend of modern jazz and Latin stylings that define this group becoming immediately clear. Villafranca used extended voicings, and saxophonist Ivan Renta played digital patterns, both signify the “modern” jazz sound, while the deep Latin clave remained in the rhythm section about 95-percent of the night.
“Blue Monk” began the second set with drummer Diego Lopez stretching his solo chops. Gradually, Renta and Villafranca snuck in and played the melody as a kind of ethereal tone poem that happened in no particular time frame. As the melody finished, Renta took the lead and he and Lopez did some duo interplay as the rest of the group sat out. These two fiery musicians were able to show off some serious chops as they filled the space without a single stutter. Chembo made use of his shell shakers to add some ambiance and bassist Carlo De Rosa took a solo while Villafranca laid down some salsa grooves on the piano.
The arrangement of “Afro Blue” was like no other that I have heard before. It began with a conga solo from Corniel, and eventually drummer Diego Lopez and Pianist Elio Villafranca each played a 2/3 clave on bells, while Renta held down the one with a shaker. Villafranca stood up from the piano and faced the crowd at a microphone where he sang an original chant over the percussive groove. When the piano, saxophone, and bass finally entered, they all played a musical statement that served as a kind of interlude between portions of the melody. Renta played the melody on saxophone, but the album Afro-Blue Monk, which this concert was in support of, features composer-percussionist Mongo Santamaria’s daughter Ileana Santamaria singing the melody in Spanish. Renta blew his sax solo over the 2/3 groove, and right as he was wrapping it up, Lopez broke into a swing on the ride cymbal and De Rosa followed suit. Villafranca took over as soloist over the fast swing while Corniel used a variety of shakers to add textural elements.
As the night was wrapping up, the group played another original called “Deluge,” which featured Chembo’s own virtuosic conga chops in the intro and made its way to a beautiful melody on the saxophone. Chembo stood up and played some shekere on this one. Villafranca picked right up without a full stop and took the group into a largely subtoned ballad, before they offered the audience one final romp with a burning-fast rhumba guaguanco.
Jazz/Latino, Inc. is a nonprofit organization that has brought top-shelf Latin jazz talent like this to the Capital Region for the past five years through its concert series Ahora, Latin/Jazz!, which acts as a kind of floating venue. The series is hosted by president Jose E. Cruz, who is able to fund the concerts entirely through grant money and donations. The audience was appreciative and attentive, if lacking in numbers, but the awareness of the Latin jazz tradition is growing, and there is certainly no lack in talent.