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Blowin’ down the house: Habana Sax. Photo by Joe Putrock.

One Drummer and Four Saxophones
By Paul Rapp

Habana Sax
The Egg, March 21

Cuban jazz monstrosity Habana Sax paid us what has become (happily) an annual visit in Albany last Friday, still (unhappily) paddling upstream in the river to fame and fortune. This is a group who arrived here two years ago totally unknown and, in one of their three U.S. gigs, demolished a handful of people at the Troy Music Hall. Last year, on their way to a tour of Canadian jazz festivals, they did the same to a sizable audience at the Egg. The Egg crowd was pretty much word-of-mouth from the TMH crowd—because Habana Sax had received no press (in the country!!) except from Metroland.

Not that the lack of mass adulation seems to bother them much. After 20 years together, the members of Habana Sax are nothing if not patient.

This year they’re back for a brief U.S. tour, still without the big push, the record deal, or the major-market critical acclaim. They have recorded a new CD, which is a vast improvement over their previous crude Cuban release. Unfortunately, after three dates they’d sold all of the copies they had brought, save one. Showing an entrepreneurial spirit that belied their communistic upbringings, the band raffled off the one remaining copy, and made a small fortune. El Capitalisme rocks!

This year’s show was not wildly different than the last two years, although it was a bit more in-the-pocket and straight-ahead. No Santaria chanting. No old-time Son dance tunes. No vocalese. And no gradual replacement of the entire band with members of the audience.

It was as if, maybe, these guys would prefer to be remembered for their musical acumen than their outlandish stunts and incredible range. They needn’t be concerned. Their virtuosity, their all-around musicality leaps at you from the first note, and remains the first order of business all night, no matter if they’re singing, dancing, rapping or trading instruments in the middle of the song.

Sure, it takes about a minute to get one’s ears acclimated to the sound of four saxophones and a drummer, but after that the Habana Sax experience is as wonderful as anything you’re going to see. The show opened with a slow Middle Eastern- sounding piece that exploded into righteous, heady funk, with lightening-fast unison playing and soaring solos. Drummer Francesco Vayas percolated, emulating a Latin percussion section. No, make that an entire Latin marching band. In the middle of a torrent of notes, the four reedmen started dancing, and the song ended abruptly on a mimed fake note. There. One song down. An intense version of Summertime followed, which traversed several centuries and hemispheres.

I’m tempted to say they fake their pigeon English, since bandleader Jorge Luis Almeida’s attempts to address the crowd are always as charming as they are hilarious. “Theese song, it is for the ummm, how you say, loverperson tonight. Hope you like.” You just can’t beat that!

A hopped-up In the Mood appeared to thrill audience members of a certain age, but mainly served to demonstrate how incredibly lame rhythmically popular white American music can be. Interspersed among the killer Latin numbers, we did get some African singing, some classical music, some hiphop (killer) and some five-part ensemble clapping. Drummer Vayas threw in a drum solo that was all tension and nuance, and his now-legendary maracas solo, which has to be seen to be believed, has grown some new tricks in the past year. Unbelievable.

A fascinating thing about Habana Sax is that, at least on stage, they’re a band of equals. Each plays great, moves great, and gets a decent share of the spotlight. What makes it so amazing is that it all happens on such stratospheric levels.

Maybe this year is the one for Habana Sax. Maybe next year or the year after that. It will happen. And as long as they come back here every year, I will go see them, and you really should go, too. It’ll be good for you.

Two Great Tastes

Béla Fleck and the Flecktones
Palace Theatre, March 22

How many times have I sat or stood, thirsty, mean, wavering in the questionable fragrant mists of my brothers and sisters, getting elbowed, addled, soaked with cheap ale, just to catch a glimpse of artistic genius? And how many times did these prodigal minstrels deliver tenfold, shoveling copious degrees of sweet and capable melody into my gaping maw, which blew smoke rings and said all the wrong things to women? How I hated them. Like Salinger’s Holden, how I despised the greatness of my saviors, whose transcendence touched a troubled spot at the base of my neck, caused a nagging arrhythmia in my heart that knew, just knew they had you. And they knew they had me too, and there was nothing I could do about it. Talent so good that I was embarrassed for them, maybe even a little sorry.

So now, I’m only going to attend shows that I have merely a marginal interest in seeing, shows where there is a definite possibility that I may nod clean off into springtime slumber. Like Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, for example. I mean, how good could they possibly be, right? “Blu-Bop?” Bluegrass brought to seed with water siphoned from the vast questionable ocean of jazz? They’re taking one helluva chance with these two predominantly American life forms if you ask me. The combination could go either way: We could end up with something rich and nefariously addictive, like a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, or with a loathsome, futile exercise, a bad meld, like the NFL and instant replays, or Windows 95 and cheap power strips.

Well, they got chocolate in my peanut butter. Perpetual Grammy-nominee Béla Fleck, bassist Victor Wooten, inventor- percussionist Future Man (Roy Wooten), and saxophonist Jeff Coffin chartered lavish, ambient soundscapes, kicking things off with the stirring “Next” and plunging into the courageous “Off the Top,” immediately sucking the crowd in like Japanese beetles to a pool filter. Fleck’s effortless arpeggios and Coffin’s dazzling spray of brass confection were a mighty dance o’er the ceremonial grounds tirelessly laid by the brothers Wooten. “Futch,” as the drummer is affectionately dubbed, fashions most of his instruments from the circuitry of his own brain, now and then employing conventional technology and acoustic drums to garnish his dynamic salvos. This flexibility offers limitless potential, and at times he used his Drumitar and the kit simultaneously. It was clear from his solo spot that he seeks to implement a pianist’s approach to percussion.

Speaking of solos, I heard a guy next to me coo to his honey, “Each guy takes a solo, check it out!” I fought the imperious urge to flee the venue. Years of arena rock has taught me this, but it was an unnecessary fear. Wooten was astounding, looping run after run into an entire bass orchestra of whale cries that ran smack into the crushing “Stomping Grounds.” Coffin crammed two saxes in his maw and blew the coop. Fleck himself blew it up with his standard Bach prelude into streams of pure consciousness, and many of the tunes, particularly the remote “Sherpa,” contained derivative instrumental battles, but never to the point of gratuitousness. Most important, the quartet had a ton of fun with all this heavy-duty grad-school music, a lot of call-and-response and intertextual hat tips (“Imagine,” “Wipeout,” “Dueling Banjos,” “Amazing Grace,” insert the haunting chorus of your memory here) amid dollops of Latin, reggae, Middle Eastern cuisine and the Memphis/New Orleans spicy highballs that hurt your internals but shuffled your feet. Fleck fans received a special treat when the band totally unloaded on the audience with “Scratch and Sniff” before cleaning up with “Hoedown,” and thus my sojourn, another pilgrimage for mediocrity ended in a chocolaty glaze of faith, madness and peanutty goodness.

How I hate them.

—Bill Ketzer


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