By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Abel Folgar
By Kat Bein
By Jacob Katel
By Karli Evans
By Jose D. Duran
By Pablo Chacon Alvarez
A week or so before the second annual Miami Latin Jazz Festival, held February 15 at the Gusman Center for the Performing Arts, organizer Arturo Campa told me the show was going to span the history of Afro-Cuban music. And the lineup for the event, a benefit for the Friends of the Gusman Center, promised to do just that, with a mix of urbane jazzbos and rootsy percussionists who represent the music's rural origins and its incorporation of American jazz and swing. Sadly the concert also spanned the gamut of quality, ranging from moments of sublime beauty and fiery passion to some embarrassingly excessive showboating. Oh, and there were some frothy lite-jazz noodlings thrown in as well.
The well-attended show kicked off with a performance by the Miami High Jazz Band, an impressive conglomeration of precocious players conducted by Michelle Fernandez. There were some outstanding solos by the saxophonist, and the pianist was impressive as well (ditto for Fernandez's own piano work on one of her original compositions). Adding the Miami High group to the bill was something of a masterstroke, and with public-school arts and music departments across the country being hacked apart by myriad budget cuts, it's reassuring to see what can still be done in the face of bureaucratic indifference.
Next up was Francisco Aguabella and his Afro-Cuban Ensemble, who concocted a percolating melange of brass and percussion around the astonishing work of the Cuba-born, Los Angeles-based congero. Dressed in a gray hat, gray suit, and a crisp white shirt buttoned to the collar, and armed with only three congas, Aguabella summarized more than 100 years of Cuban drum history into a 45-minute set that could've -- or rather, should've -- gone on for an hour. Or two. The interaction between Aguabella and his timbalero culminated in one of the most profound and emotional displays of percussive prowess and talking-drum discussion I've ever had the good fortune to witness. And through it all, the dignity, charm, and grace of Aguabella simply shined from center stage.
I didn't expect much from the set by pianist Danilo Perez. On record he's a fine player, and his 1996 album PanaMonk has some refreshing rewrites of classics by songwriter/pianist Thelonious Monk, but there's something sterile and workmanlike about the disc. At the Gusman, though, Perez was a monster -- a dazzling, versatile monster, navigating his drummer and bassist through the music with an artful, gleeful kind of recklessness that, judging from the beaming faces of the three musicians, was as much fun for them as it was for anyone in the theater. The stuff from PanaMonk was delivered with more force and more punch than the album, from an impassioned run through the title cut to "Bright Mississippi," presented the other night in a version I'll probably forever use as a benchmark whenever the next young hotshot comes sniffing around the Monk standard.
A merely okay sextet led by tenor-saxman Justo Almario had the unpleasant task of following Perez's trio, and they were clearly ill-equipped for the challenge. A fine sideman who's played with Cachao, Mongo Santamaria, and many more, Almario just isn't much of a bandleader. No shame there, of course, but that didn't make his group's generic if mildly pleasant work any better, nor did the indulgent pyrotechnics of Almario's thump-happy bassist. High point of the set? A lovely duet between Almario and said bassist during one of his rare moments of taste and restraint.
Oh, but if jazz-fest headliner Arturo Sandoval knew something of those two traits. Although he is rightly revered in Latin jazz circles for his dexterous trumpet skills and fine albums such as 1991's I Remember Clifford, Sandoval's performance at the Gusman was alternately tedious and unsettling -- a shameless display of scene-stealing. Like a kid who drags you into his room to show you every toy he owns, Sandoval insisted on showing the audience the range of his versatility and musicianship, leaping from trumpet to timbales to piano, and capping it all off with a grueling scat workout that seemed to go on far longer than its already indulgent ten minutes. (How grueling? At one point, Sandoval's pianist was seen resting his head on his instrument.) Even worse, because the show was running behind schedule, Sandoval's set was to have been abbreviated by about ten minutes. Upon learning this from organizer/ master of ceremonies Arturo Campa, Sandoval first pouted, then huffed off to a stage-left exit; his attempt to humiliate Campa worked, and the emcee was forced to bring the star back for one last song. And I gotta admit, it was a hell of a song -- a blazing cha-cha-cha that made good on Sandoval's musical reputation and had you wondering why he chose to squander so much of his set.
As a good project for a worthy group and as a much-needed music event in a city with too few of 'em, the Miami Latin Jazz Festival is at least an aesthetic winner. (No tally yet on the monies raised, but Sandoval only broke even on last year's show.) Some advice for next year? Confine the bill to two -- maybe three -- main acts, in addition to the Miami High Jazz Band. This year's concert ran a little over five hours, and that's about two hours too long. Keep the variety in the roster: Although I can take or leave the lighter side of Latin jazz, a lot of people like it, and it certainly has a place in a program such as this. And one last thing: Have the artists check their egos at the door. The Gusman just isn't that big.