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"We're not a Latin band, we're not a jazz band, we're not a funk band, we're not a reggae band. We're all of that," Los Hombres Calientes percussionist Bill Summers says from New Orleans, his adopted hometown, about the Grammy-nominated music collective. "Very seldom do you see groups that have such a wide and diverse platform."
Celebrating communal music-making of one variety or another has always been at the heart of Los Hombres Calientes, a combo led by Summers and young trumpet firebrand Irvin Mayfield. The band unofficially got its start as a series of low-profile jam sessions. Mayfield and drummer Jason Marsalis, the youngest member of the jazz-playing Marsalis family, hung out at the percussionist's Multi-Ethnic Institute of Arts in the Crescent City for informal lessons and musical/spiritual camaraderie.
Meanwhile Mayfield, who had just returned to New Orleans after a sojourn in New York City, was encouraged by Marsalis to pay Summers a visit. "He came by and said, 'I'd like to combine my gig [band] with you,'" adds the percussionist. The three musicians, along with bassist David Pulphus (later replaced by Texas bassist Edwin Livingston), pianist Victor "Red" Atkins, and percussionist-singer (and Summers's then-wife) Yvette Bostic-Summers, played together at noted jazz club Snug Harbor in February 1998. The group quickly recorded a self-titled debut CD at the behest of Basin Street Records founder Mark Samuels and joined Mayfield during his enthusiastically received set at the Jazz and Heritage Festival later that spring.
Los Hombres' high-energy performances and recordings immediately began to attract attention. The group's debut disc was named Contemporary Latin Jazz Album of the Year at the 2000 Billboard Latin Music Awards and Los Hombres received laudatory profiles in the jazz magazines and national newspapers. Their infectious mix of modern jazz, Afro-Cuban, Latin, African, reggae, and funk also yielded considerable attention among critics, earning a string of winnings in the prestigious DownbeatInternational Critics Poll.
Marsalis left to devote more time to his trio job with pianist Marcus Roberts after 1999's Vol. 2;he was replaced by a rotating cast of skins men, including Jaz Sawyer, Horacio "El Negro" Hernandez, and current mainstay drummer Ricky Sebastian, all of whom have split their time between Los Hombres and other commitments. The band has also seen the departure of aspiring actress Bostic-Summers (Summers says he misses the "feminine" element she brought to the band) and the addition of a three-piece horn section -- trumpeter Leon "Kid Chocolate" Brown, trombonist Stephen Walker, and tenor saxophonist Devin Phillips. "What the horn section does is, it gives us the possibility of having pop appeal," Summers says. "That horn section is another energy on the stage." But Los Hombres Calientes' communal vibe remains the same, as underscored by the latest disc, which has the core octet joined by a long list of singers, horn players, percussionists, and drummers, all invited to join what feels like an open-ended world music party.
Vodou Danceis a sonic travelogue that documents Summers and Mayfield's explorations. For the mellow and decidedly enchanting "Trinidad Nocturne," a number written and arranged by Mayfield, the two Los Hombres leaders tracked down the Pamberi Steel Orchestra from a phone number taken off the back of a CD at a local music store and recorded the 40-piece ensemble in a house several miles from downtown Port of Spain.
"When we got there, the pan players were people of all ages -- women, young girls, middle-age cats -- and in the room that we recorded in there were at least 100 pans," Summers recounts. "The place was indoor/outdoor, like a huge hangar with no front door. You could look out over the mountains -- the back of it opened up. We hung mikes from the rafters, hooked it all up. Irvin wrote all the music on the blackboard, we rehearsed them two or three times and then cut it. They were perfect. They read it like a symphony orchestra."
Summers and Mayfield took a similar D.I.Y. approach for the album tracks recorded in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. "Jean Raymond [the drummer] had this house in the ghetto, the real ghetto -- no street lights, no house lights, no electricity," Summers says. "We told them we wanted to record some music, so ... an old guy came over with a bale of wire and wired the house within an hour, with outlets and light switches. They put a generator far enough away from the house [so as not to cause a sonic disturbance]."
Summers, happy to claim New Orleans as "the northernmost Caribbean country," hopes Los Hombres' approach to making art in a wide spectrum of musical styles will tip listeners to the group's true mission. "I don't want to be a jazz band," he says. "I have such a problem being pigeonholed that way. This band is a dance band. This band is a band for your soul. This band is a band to make peace on earth."