Thursday, May 3, 2007
The Monterey Bay Aquarium is the perfect place to explore an awe-inspiring menagerie gathered from the far corners of the Earth. And you can see some cool fish there too.
The night creatures I’m referring to belong to the far-flung genus known as Latin jazzus, a disparate collection of musicians who have evolved out of the various tributaries flowing from the New World confluence of Iberian and African culture.
The annual Jazz at the Aquarium fund-raiser for Santa Cruz’s Kuumbwa Jazz Center and the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which takes place at the Aquarium on Friday, brings together some of the world’s most exciting and imaginative Latin jazz musicians. Leading the pack is percussionist Pete Escovedo, a fixture on the Bay Area jazz scene for four decades, and the patriarch of a musical dynasty that includes his daughter Sheila E and sons Peter Michael and Juan. Since he migrated to Southern California several years ago, drawn by the presence of his record label, Concord Jazz, and other work opportunities, his Northern California gigs have taken on the feeling of a reunion.
Stocked with the top shelf players that make his band one of the most exciting and versatile Latin combos in the business, the Escovedo Latin Jazz Orchestra features trombonist/arranger Wayne Wallace, reed master Melecio Magdaluyo, pianist Murray Low, trumpeters John Worley and Robbie Kwock, and the Dutch-born brothers Mark and Paul Van Wageningen on bass and drums, respectively.
“The move to LA made a lot of sense, but the Bay Area is home, and I love getting together with these cats,” Escovedo says. “I don’t do too many of the clubs here in LA, but it’s been good. I’ve played Hollywood Bowl, the Disney Concert Hall, and I get to play with the kids occasionally.”
In addition to Escovedo’s orchestra, the Aquarium program features a wide range of musical settings, from the solo piano of Santa Cruz-based pianist Murray Low—one of the most sought after Latin jazz players on the West Coast—to the spectacular Brazilian jazz of vocalist Claudia Villela and guitarist Ricardo Peixoto.
They’ve been musical partners since 1995, but the seeds of their remarkable collaboration were planted years ago in Rio de Janeiro. Although they were born and grew up in the same Rio neighborhood, they met for the first time on the day after Villela moved to the Bay Area in 1984. Occasional gigs together gradually grew into an inspired partnership that has fully blossomed with their gorgeous CD, Inverse Universe, which was released on Adventure Music in 2003. Inspired by the vast musical soul of Brazil, their compositions freely intermingle indigenous African and European references with the harmonic complexity of jazz in an emotionally nuanced approach that’s both nostalgic and thoroughly contemporary.
Besides her soaring five-octave voice, what sets Villela apart from other Brazilian singers is her expansive conception of the country’s music. She uses many familiar elements, such as samba and bossa nova, but she also draws on older forms, including partido alto, a carnival beat, and baiao, a highly syncopated 2/4 blues-like song form popularized by Luiz Gonzaga in the mid-1940s.
“With some tunes people might say, ‘Is this Brazilian music?’ because it draws on the older sources, the Portuguese, the Moors, the Indians and Gypsies,” Villela says. “People might not realize that the music we hear today has that foundation.”
While Villela has gained an international reputation, the Aquarium program features another singular Latin jazz singer who is just starting to make a name for herself as a solo act. Vocalist Kat Parra released a stunning debut album last year Birds In Flight, a session produced by Wayne Wallace with arrangements by Murray Low. For the Aquarium performance she’s joined by Brazilian pianist Weber Iago, bassist Tom Bockhold and drummer Mike Shannon.
What sets Parra apart is her passion for mixing and blending musical styles. Working with Low and Wallace, Parra has developed an unusual repertoire marked by rhythmic sophistication and unpredictable song choices. On the album’s opening track, she sings Jorge Ben’s Brazilian classic samba “Mas Que Nada” set to an Afro-Cuban groove with a touch of hip-hop.
The year she spent as a high school exchange student in Chile in the late 1970s continues to influence her sensibility, as can be heard on her subtle, knowing version of “Quizas Porque,” a song by the great Argentine rock band Sui Generis, “who were the Beatles of Latin America,” Parra says. Most unexpectedly, she explores her Sephardic Jewish heritage, a refracted point of connection with Latin America, through Low’s sensitive arrangement of the Ladino song “Kuando El Rey Nimrod.”
The expansive program includes several other Caribbean flavors from Pan Montuno, a band led by steel drummer Derek Smith. Drawing on reggae, calypso and Afro-Cuban grooves, the combo has honed a lively repertoire by reinventing material from Cal Tjader, Bob Marley, Andy Narell and Tito Puente. And for a glimpse at the future of jazz, there’s the Kuumbwa Honor Jazz Band, an ensemble of high school students who make a compelling case that jazz isn’t heading for the endangered species list.
JAZZ AT THE AQUARIUM takes place at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, 886 Cannery Row in Monterey, on Friday, May 4, 8pm, $65. 648-4880, kuumbwajazz.org.