Four years ago in January my wife and I happened upon the Puerto Rico Jazz Jam held at the nineteenth century Teatro Tapia in Old San Juan. The Humberto Ramírez Big Band played with a host of the island’s best musicians, Luis “Perico” Ortiz and Giovanni Hidalgo among others. Fast forward to last week, January 2024, this time at the Centro De Bellas Artes Sala René Márques in Santurce for the 14th annual Puerto Rico Jazz Jam. Instead of a single night I went to both evenings of the event and let me tell you it was happenin’!
Friday January 26th featured Sounds Of Percussion and Furito Ríos and Standard Bomba Quintet. Saturday was devoted to Ramírez’s big band in a tribute to The Latin Queen Of Soul, La Lupe. When I found out about the shows I was so excited I changed into my running clothes and ran over to the venue to purchase tickets.
Sounds Of Percussion was a showcase of four talented musicians: Zayra Pola (timbales), Kachiro Thompson (congas), Richie Carrasco (bongo) and Francisco Alcalá (drums). They were ably supported by Richard Trinidad on piano and Robert López on acoustic bass They began the show with an old Cal Tjader tune called “Mambo Terrifico” followed by a Tito Puente number where Pola furiously soloed. In fact, the pattern was similar on all the tunes, as each percussionist played an extended solo. The most arresting solo was Richie Carrasco’s where he used the campana (bell) and bongo in a way I had never heard before. Thompson and Alcalá had some interesting things to say on their respective instruments as well. Thompson spoke to the audience at length starting a trend I noted with the other groups.
One of the great things about going to the Jazz Jam is that one gets exposed to many new artists. Furito Ríos has been around for some time now and he confessed to the audience that he had played the Sala René Márques thousands of times but never with his own band. I have no idea why they waited so long to showcase his brilliant band: Joaquin Del Rio (acoustic and electric bass), Josue Gónzalez (piano), Issac Cruz (various percussion instruments) and Hectór Matos (drums). Ríos plays the alto and tenor saxes in addition to being the musical director of the band. After two original compositions, Ríos introduced the crowd to his son Raúl who proceeded to sing and rap on an original song. Raul seemed to be the spark that the band was waiting for as the music went up to another level. After a brief absence Raúl came back with his trumpet and the band broke into the Miles Davis chestnut from Kind Of Blue, “Freddie Freeloader”. The Ríos family has some mighty musicians as Raúl played with great expertise. Papá Ríos made the most of his solos as he wove some great lines throughout the evening. Ríos saved the best for last, a gorgeous “Freedom” penned by the late Barry Harris. If that wasn’t enough, their friend Héctor Calderón (leader of the folkloric group Yubá Iré) came out and danced to the beat of the barril de bomba (a drum made from a rum barrel) played by Cruz.
The next night, Saturday January 27th, drummer Henry Cole and his trio opened the show with a Joe Henderson tune that set the tone for the evening. The superb pianist Luis Perdomo, veteran of many jazz bands in New York, was particularly inspired as was the excellent acoustic bass player Ricky Rodríguez. Two songs stood out during their set, Perdomo’s composition “Dance Of The Elephants”, with its rhapsodic beginning that built to a thrilling climax. Henry told us about finding his tio-abuelo’s (great uncle) original composition, a bolero, entitled “Lirio Blanco” in the tio-abuelo’s home, which they played with great emotion, clearly a loving tribute to his tio-abuelo. Cole spoke at length on several occasions to accentuate the music and was very eloquent when speaking about his family. Watching Cole’s constant movements while playing the drums was captivating, he doesn’t just play the drums, he moves to and with the music. Perdomo and Rodríguez were not sideshow performers; they made significant statements throughout the whole set. To end their portion of the show Cole brought out vocalist and stunning dancer Tanicha López. She sang and moved with an indescribable groove to a Silvio Rodríguez tune, suddenly bringing the audience to its feet.
Without an introduction the curtain went up and the Humberto Ramírez Big Band swung into action with two shining tunes. What transpired next was what the capacity crowd came for, the tribute to La Lupe, who passed away at the young age of 52, a singer of undeniable power and emotion, whose voice brought down the house every time she performed. Singer Michelle Brava inhabited the numbers with grace and simplicity not trying to imitate La Lupe but bringing her own style to the proceedings which proved to be absolutely appropriate. Ramírez proved to be a wonderful emcee who kept the audience’s attention with information about the music and personal anecdotes, quite in contrast with performers in the States who rush immediately to the next tune. The audience was completely taken with the Big Band and her voice, so much so that they sang along with most of La Lupe’s famous songs. The Boleros were especially effective as the audience members became increasingly entranced. On the more uptempo songs, two back-up singers came out to augment the sound with their voices and traditional dancing. Special mention must be made for Ramírez’s highly attuned arrangements. Solos were crisp and uniform and the ensemble-playing was direct and supportive. The evening closed with the Henry Fiol track “Oriente”, a song the audience would recall from one of the great soneros (lead singers) of Puerto Rico. Solos abounded and one in particular was memorable, Reinaldo Jorge blasted out some earth shaking sounds on his trombone. Thus ended a thoroughly satisfying evening of fabulous sounds!!
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