Latin Jazz Aflame at the Talkhouse

The flyers were saying "Potato," while we, of course, were saying "Patato" and wondering if there was more to this mistake than a typo. Do these people know who Patato is? Those who have had a dose of Latin jazz in the last 30 years know there is only one Patato Valdez. If you're looking for a synonym for fiery, melodic conga playing and showmanship, look up Patato. It was with this influential conguero as special guest that the Stephen Talkhouse kicked off its "Latin Meets Jazz on South Beach" series in mid-September.

In the tradition of the now-famous "Salsa Meets Jazz" at the Village Gate in New York City, every Monday the Talkhouse promises to feature some of the most talented Latin jazz musicians in the country. An array of timberos (percussionists), pianists, and brass players will assemble at the Talkhouse in the coming weeks (although exact dates for most haven't yet been confirmed) A the legendary Tito Puente, as well as Roy Ayers, flautist and NPR host Dave Valentin, Eddie Palmieri, Ray Barreto, Daniel Ponce, Tito Nieves, Milton Cardona, Papo Vasquez, Poncho Sanchez, and others to be announced on a weekly basis.

The Stephen Talkhouse is working in conjunction with producers Leo Casino and Anthony Harris of Ralph Mercado Management, who manage or have close contact with many of the featured musicians. Casino (not to be confused with the local jazz saxophonist) was one of the first producers-promoters of the now-defunct "Salsa Meets Jazz" series. He essentially wants to continue the tradition of the great Afro-Cuban sounds that filled the Village Gate for about twenty years, and establish a base here where musicians can meet and play this music after their gigs. "We want to develop this [series] into an ongoing jam session, a place where people know that every Monday there'll be great Latin jazz," says Talkhouse co-owner Loren Gallo. Herein lies the impetus for the Monday night showtime. The producers figure if a musician is in town for a weekend gig, there is a higher probability the musician will be willing to hang for the weekend and stop by for a jam session, rather than waiting until later in the week. Also, there isn't much in the way of quality entertainment on Mondays on South Beach.

All these guests will be accompanied by the capable house band, Abasi. Its members include bassist Jorge "Yoyi" Solar, machine-gun pianist extraordinaire Felix Gomez (who has played with Camilo Cesto, Arturo Sandoval, and others), Oscar Salas on trap drums, and Grisell Sanchez on vocals and congas. This coming Monday, however, Grisell will have to step aside, at least for a while, and allow the thunderous hands of Giovanni "Manenguito" Hidalgo to weave some melodic magic in what promises to be one of the better displays of Latin percussion South Beach has seen.

This young Puerto Rican conguero is truly an all-around master percussionist -- and he proves it on his latest release Worldwide on Tropijazz/Sony. Hidalgo plays an assortment of instruments -- from Yoruba ceremonial bata drums to congas to traps, from cymbals and cowbells to water bottles, and even metal ashtrays. He created a stir when he began working with the great pianist Eddie Palmieri in 1976 -- at the age of thirteen. Since then Manenguito (named after his accomplished musician father Manengue) has played with a list of musicians that reads like a who's who of jazz and Latin music -- McCoy Tyner, Art Blakey, Ruben Blades, Jaco Pastorius, Mario Ortiz, Tito Puente, Carlos Santana, Paquito D'Rivera, and other. He was also, in 1980, a founding member of Batacumbele, considered one of Puerto Rico's most sonorous bands.

Throughout the CD, Hidalgo literally solos with one hand while providing steady sabroso melodies with the other hand. A worldwide assortment of rhythmic patterns -- African six-eights, Afro-Cuban three-two claves -- are intermingled with classical and traditional jazz phrasing of horns, piano, flute, bass, and traps. The album features a mix of jazz favorites such as the Duke's "It Don't Mean a Thing," Miles Davis's "Seven Steps to Heaven," and originals by Hilton Ruiz, Eric Figueroa, and Marty Sheller. In particular, Hilton Ruiz's "Exit Seven" is a tune that allows Manenguito to flex a few percussive muscles; he does it again in "Blue Minor," which has a decidedly Afro-Cuban bent. Coincidentally, two of the featured musicians in the Talkhouse series A Dave Valentin and Hilton Ruiz -- also give the listener a dose of their playing talents on this CD.

This Monday marks the fifth week of the series and there has already been at least one memorable show, last Monday. There they were: mambo pioneer Israel "Cachao" Lopez on his ancient upright bass, Carlos "Patato" Valdez on custom-made LP congas -- red and white, the symbolic colors of the Yoruba god of drums -- and the stage shook with thunder. Manteca!

Giovanni Hidalgo performs at 9:00 p.m. at the Stephen Talkhouse (616 Collins Ave, Miami Beach, 531-7557) Monday, October 11. Admission costs $10 and $15.