Fascination with Cuban culture is understandable for those of us just a short jaunt from the island. But long ago the lure of the enchanting nation and its infectious music took hold of Bill Summers as a ten-year-old living in Detroit. Back then Summers was studying classical piano at a conservatory in the Northeast. He was also listening intently to his family's eclectic record collection, which boasted artists such as Xavier Cugat, Perez Prado, Harry Belafonte, and Dizzy Gillespie with the great Cuban percussionist Chano Pozo. Eager to learn a few Ray Charles tunes, young Summers brought some sheet music to his teacher. "She took the music, folded it up, and told me I would have time for that stuff later," he recalls.
Little did his teacher realize that Summers, who acquired his first pair of bongos at age twelve, would devote the rest of his life to playing "that stuff." The veteran percussionist, who was a longtime member of Herbie Hancock's jazz and electro-funk ensemble the Headhunters, also worked with Quincy Jones creating and performing scores for television and movies (Roots, The Color Purple), and had his own successful R&B band Summers' Heat. Now he's the elder statesman ("I'm ancient," he quips) in a new group called Los Hombres Calientes.
Twenty-one-year-old trumpet phenomenon Irvin Mayfield and drummer Jason Marsalis, yet another immensely talented progeny of the acclaimed Marsalis clan, form Los Hombres' core. Pianist Victor Atkins III, bassist David Pulphus, and singer-percussionist Yvette Bostic-Summers (yes, that would be Mrs. Summers -- a woman!) round out the ensemble. A natural outgrowth of Summers's and Mayfield's interests in Cuban music and culture, the group developed a little over a year ago as a result of the core musicians hanging out and jamming on Saturdays at Summers's house in New Orleans. The band made its public debut at the city's prestigious jazz restaurant-club Snug Harbor. A few gigs later, they retreated to the studio and quickly released an eponymous first album, which contains lilting Afro-Cuban-inspired original tunes, many of them named in honor of band members ("Rhumba Para Jason," "Victor El Rojo"), and a Caribbean-tinged cover of Hoagy Carmichael's wistful, complex ballad "Stardust."
The name "Los Hombres Calientes" translates literally as "the hot men." ("It wasn't our intention to sound egotistical," says Summers about the handle dreamed up by Mayfield, "but I definitely feel we do live up to that name!"). They play in Miami for the first time July 8, as the third concert of the season in the diverse Coral Gables Congregational Church 1999 Summer Concert Series. The music gets under way this Thursday when pianist Ahmad Jamal and his trio perform jazz standards and intricate improvisations. Scheduled for the future: duo pianists Laich and Bergman, the Hungarian Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra, jazz vocalist Nnenna Freelon, and the Dallas Brass.
Los Hombres, though, may be the ones who feel the most at ease in motley Miami, where musicians of all stripes play music of all types. And, unfortunately, where often-jaded audiences aren't always the most supportive, no matter if the tunes are foreign or domestic. Summers remains upbeat, confident that the band will win crowds over with their fine musicianship and reverence for jazz and Latin culture. "When people say they are playing Afro-Cuban music, that's a huge statement," he notes. "In terms of straight ahead Afro-Cuban music, and I mean the folkloric, I think we're the only band that can say we are playing authentic Afro-Cuban music. And I mean authentic -- not some Taco Bell kind of stuff! Our music is the best of everyone's world."
The Coral Gables Congregational Church 1999 Summer Concert Series begins at 8:00 p.m. Thursday, June 10, and runs through Thursday, August 19, at Coral Gables Congregational Church, 3010 De Soto Blvd, Coral Gables. Tickets cost $25. Call 305-448-7421.