Talkin' 'Bout Their Generation

In an Argentine restaurant on Coral Way trombone player Juan Pablo Torres and percussionist Giovanni Hidalgo are working their way through a pile of grilled beef and talking tango. A restorative midday breakfast of stuffed large intestine, blood sausage, and cold Heineken stems the drain of the previous night's descarga: a Latin jazz jam on the stage of nearby Teatro Trail on Calle Ocho.

Rice grains fly from Hidalgo's jeweled pinkie ring as he beats his manicured hands on the table, reliving a tango fusion that had people on their feet the night before. "Tum, tum. Pa-pa-pa-pa. Tum, tum. You mix tango, jazz, and son montuno, and it sounds like guajira. Es de pinga," he laughs.

"Si, brother," nods Torres, who toured with modern tango innovator Astor Piazzolla's band for a time. "Piazzolla led the way. Now the horizon's open all around."

Major Latin musicians have been meeting all about town this month. Saxman Paquito D'Rivera, trying to cure us Americans of that Eurocentric musical confusion he calls the "Carmen Miranda syndrome," gave a play-and-tell presentation at Gusman during the Miami Film Festival, screening a montage of autentico Latin Jazz on Film before blowing the point home in a jam with Paquito Hechavarria in a bar across the street.

Mambo king and bassist Israel "Cachao" (whose filmographic portrait by Andy Garcia is running at the Alliance on Lincoln Road) was sitting in the front row. Hilton Ruiz came down from New York for a few days at the urging of Rose's Bar and Music Lounge owner Arthur Barron, and said he was "happy as Flipper" to be playing to the easily distracted South Beach club crowd. Diminutive Cuban percussionist Patato Valdes popped up there after an unexpected appearance at Teatro Trail, where Uruguayan violinist Federico Britos Ruiz (of the New World Symphony) supplied Southern Cone sabor to the tango jazz session. Don't even say salsa to this crowd. "Welcome to the Tropicana," clowned D'Rivera at the film festival. The spirit almost moved you to believe it.

Juan Pablo Torres, said by his considerable peers to be the greatest Cuban trombonist, founded the modern Orquesta Cubana with D'Rivera, trumpeter Arturo Sandoval, and pianist Chucho Valdes early in Torres's career. After touring the world, recording on a couple dozen albums, and living in Spain, Torres arrived in Miami last year. For the past few weeks, the trombone player has headed up the Thursday concerts at Teatro Trail, performing with a revolving group of local musicians billed as the Latin Jazz Quintet, and guest artists and old friends like Puerto Rican master conguero Hidalgo, who teaches at the Berklee College of Music in Boston.

Gustavo Coletti, who's producing the concerts, was also at the meat-laden table as the two musicians gleefully rehashed the high points of their reunion. His smile was thin, however, and his attention was not fixed on his steak, but alternated between a whining beeper and a cellular phone. Coletti, from Buenos Aires, has discovered the trials of trying to maintain a consistent venue for Latin jazz in Miami. The Teatro Trail concerts follow other admirable attempts, like the Monday night Latin Meets Jazz series at the Stephen Talkhouse last summer, which was discontinued owing to irregular organization and promotion, lamentably the nature of this beast.

As Talkhouse co-owner Loren Gallo explains it, travelling Latin artists who make a living from international tours or session work are difficult to schedule in advance. And even when they're booked, they might drop the date. "When they get a better offer, they walk," Gallo says. A jam session may be defined by improvisation, but good business is not. An older Latin crowd and young music students have been enthusiastically attending the concerts at Teatro Trail A a musty old onetime movie theater that usually hosts exile plays and folkloric Latin singers A but the house is not full. This talent doesn't come cheap, and overhead is hefty. To pay the bills, Coletti has set general admission at $20-$25 A an amount to think twice about, even for living history. The result is that they're not breaking even, and a potential audience is not being reached.

While he looks into changing venues, Coletti says he'll tough it out for as long as he can at the Little Havana theater. Ethnoflautist Dave Valentin was scheduled last week, but was snowed in up north. Tonight (Thursday), percussionist Ray Barretto and pianist Larry Harlow are on the bill. Next week the promoter A who's also a composer of tango A will present a full evening of Latin-jazz-tango, and plans to add a local (Argentine) bandoneon player to the Afro-Cuban percussion, brass, and violin.

"That's the good thing about Miami -- you need an Argentine, you got one," notes Giovanni Hidalgo, gesturing with a French fry.

Torres is particularly passionate about the need to continue the tradition of the Afro-Cuban artists who got together with American jazz cats passing through Havana (via Miami) to play the Tropicana in the Fifties: the descargas that have been going on in New York, Europe, and over in Indonesia since then. He stresses the obvious importance of providing Miami's revolving community of exile musicians -- the second and now third generations of Latin jazz artists, and everything that term now defines -- with a place to drop in.

"We've got to do this to promote the union of musicians," asserts Torres. "Mario Bauza is the culprit of all this. And when Dizzy Gillespie introduces percussion into the jazz, that's when jazz says, 'I'm never going to die.' What we're doing today is a mix of the past and the present, toward the future. We have to do things like this for the benefit of those to come."

One (of mil) motivations to catch these concerts, wherever they may be, is D'Rivera's recently released celebration of the descarga 40 Years of Latin Jam Sessions (Messidor, with liner notes by Guillermo Cabrera Infante), recorded at Criteria last year. Appearing on it are 23 musicians, including Cachao, Torres, and Andy Garcia (taking a turn on congas).

Torres provides a little more fuel for the fire as he describes the time Hidalgo scorched Havana performing with Gillespie's orchestra at the 1990 Jazz Festival. "Giovanni went to Cuba, and he smoked and smoked, and completely blew them away. In one bolero, I felt him put in conga, mozambique, guaguanco, guaracha.... That's the genius of it. It's a question of vibration."

Ray Barretto and Larry Harlow perform with Juan Pablo Torres and the Latin Jazz Quintet tonight at 8:00 at Teatro Trail, 3713 SW 8th St., 448-0592. Tickets cost $15, $20, and $25.