If you were bold enough to brave the pelting ice and hail in Manhattan last weekend, Greenwich Village was alive with Latin jazz. You needed only face the elements for a few blocks. Over at Sweet Rhythm on Seventh Avenue South was conga master and flugelhorn player Jerry Gonzalez and his Fort Apache band. The 1989 Gonzalez album, "Rumba Para Monk" (Sunnyside) reinforced two truths: Iconic jazz tunes (in this case, Thelonious Monk's) blend well with Afro Cuban rhythms; and New York musicians of Puerto Rican descent helped shape Latin jazz's sound. Mr. Gonzalez, who alternately plays congas and trumpet, projects equal parts rhythmic fire and somber lyricism. His Fort Apache band includes his brother Andy, the best Latin bassist since octogenarian Israel "Cachao" López.
Gonzalez, who moved to Madrid a few years ago, sounds energetic and inventive as ever, still conjuring up the most earthy mystery on his drums, still channeling the mute-into microphone horn sound of late-Miles without mimicry, still honinig in on the Afro-Caribbean heart beating beneath tunes such as Thelonious Monk's "Bemsha Swing."
At Sweet Rhythm, Gonzalez didn't have his "A" band -- pianist Larry Willis was replaced by Zaccai Curtis, Andy Gonzalez by bassist Junior Terry, and drummer Steve Berrios by Victor Jones; all were more than able substitutions, so it hardly mattered that the lineup had changed, the room was mostly empty, or the weather abysmal, so hot was Gonzalez's fury and so deep his focus.
Less than two blocks east, at the Blue Note, a tight all-star ensemble led by trombonist Conrad Herwig were stirring up the latest in Herwig's "Latin Side of..." cookbook, this time with Wayne Shorter as focus. (Herwig's series has already yielded two fine CDs, one of Latinized Coltrane tunes for Astor Place Records, another of Miles Davis tunes, for Half Note; this gig was being recorded for eventual Half Note release.) Trumpeter Brian Lynch played tart and precise accents, baritone saxophonist Ronnie Cuber nearly stole the show with his heartfelt solos and anchor-steady contrapuntal lines, and pianist Eddie Palmieri (in whose employ Lynch and Herwig have earned their Latin-jazz stripes), guesting for half the set, lent star power and cohesion to the project. Urged on by a full house and by the subtle intricacies of Shorter's oeuvre, the group fired up quick and shifted gears ably, like a well-tuned engine. However, their tipico approach tamed some of Shorter's more wild-eyed and subtle-hued compositional ideas. And the style exemplified by Palmieri, brilliant as it is, was not particularly well-suited for Shorter's odd chord choices. The Latin side of Shorter is in fact better evidenced on Jerry Gonzalez's 2005 CD, "Rumba Buhaina" (Random Chance).
Yet all of this attests at least in part to the primacy and resilience of Latin jazz in New York, an issue that may have been in some doubt due to the news that Jazz at Lincoln Center had discontinued its support of the Afro Latin Orchestra directed by Arturo O'Farrill. (The matter was given only a brief aside in a recent NY Times piece on the upcoming Jazz at Lincoln Center season.) Through his continuation of the Chico O'Farrill Orchestra at Birdland and especially through his outstanding work with the Lincoln Center orchestra, Arturo O'Farrill has extended both a personal and a communal legacy with elegance, precision, and enormous audience appeal. (Here's a piece I did for The Village Voice on the launch of the Afro Latin Orchestra, and on O'Farrill's first trip to Cuba a few years ago.)
Rest assured: The Afro Latin Orchestra, under the direction of Arturo O'Farrill will live on. Beginning this fall, the orchestra will begin a series of dates at Symphony Space in Manhattan, and will continue its touring dates, O'Farrill tells me. He is also forming a new nonprofit organization to maintain the orchestra and to initiate education programs and community outreach.
More power to him. And long live this ensemble.
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