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Viven Los Congueros – LA Jazz Institute’s Big Band Fiesta

From Cuban Fire to Sketches of Spain

Published on October 21, 2008

Viven Los Congueros – LA Jazz Institute’s Big Band Fiesta
LA Jazz Institute’s Big Band Fiesta Oct. 9-12, 2008 at Newport Beach, CA

Photography: All photos copyright 2008 Mark Sheldon

This Fall’s LA Jazz Institute weekend of Big Band jazz was devoted to Latin Jazz – more specifically honoring the top three living Cuban conga players with a combined 175+ years on the Latin Jazz scene: Candido Camero, Armando Peraza, and Francisco Aguabella. Each is a legend in conga circles and all were humble in contrast to their fame. When they participated in a panel discussion on Saturday afternoon, Oct. 11, their humility and wonderment about their life journeys was deeply touching. Each came from Cuba and humble backgrounds, being raised with drumming in their heritage.

Candido became the most famous after playing with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Machito and Mario Bauza. He pioneered the practice of playing two, and ultimately three congas, bringing polyrhythms to the bandstand. Now 87 years old, it was striking how his posture was still so erect, and his skills completely intact                                               

Armando Peraza, born three years later, came to New York with Mongo Santamaria, and gigged with Parker, Machito, and Perez Prado, before moving to the West Coast, where he joined forces with Cal Tjader. Next came twelve years with George Shearing, before a change of pace brought Armando to Carlos Santana’s Latin Rock group.

Francisco Aguabella, though a master percussionist, is the least known of these master congueros. However, his discography is perhaps the most varied as his path crossed with a diverse mix of musicians and vocalists, including Gillespie, Tito Puente, Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee, Nancy Wilson, and Paul Simon.

Each of these masters played throughout the weekend and brought their contagious joy of drumming to musicians honored to share the stage with them. Highlights from Big Band Fiesta were numerous – Bud Shank, on oxygen, getting out of a wheelchair and coming onstage to blow his alto seemingly reborn with Brazilliance, a quartet featuring John Pisano on guitar. Sambas and Bossa Nova tunes ranging from the Black Orpheus soundtrack to Jobim’s No More Blues, and including Here’s That Rainy Day taken at a glorious samba pace.

West Coast big band legendary leader and arranger, Bill Holman did a reinterpretation of the Rodrigo Concierto de Aranjuez, which Bill titled Echoes Of Aranjuez. It blended West Coast Swing with Latin overtones and Holman’s modern twists. The West German SWR Big Band had commissioned it from Holman. Holman’s band is made up of the best of Los Angeles jazz elite, including Andy Martin, Ron Stout, Doug Webb, Carl Saunders and Christian Jacob.

Later Friday night, Bobby Shew and Candido, led a rip-roaring revisit to the Afro-Cuban Music of the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band. Candido’s call and response with the audience after his solo brought a raucous response from the crowd.

Saturday’s visit with Jose Rizo’s Jazz on the Latin Side All-Stars showed that Latin jazz is alive and well with a younger generation of musicians. Things got so “hot” in their set that both Armando Peraza and Francisco Aguabello got into a conga duel fueled by the band’s horn section, and backed by the band’s famous drummer, Marvin “Smitty” Smith.
The sophisticated Latin rhythms of the late iconic Chico O’Farrill, were reinterpreted by Chico’s son, Arturo, who leads the New York-based Afro Cuban Jazz Orchestra. Arturo is a terrific pianist and charismatic band leader, and having Candido on stage with him lit a fire with the LA-based big band, many who have played with either Bill Holman or the Bob Florence Big Band.

Sunday’s events were just as exciting as we had the chance to hear Gil Evans’ classic Sketches of Spain, which is seldom played live, due to the complexity of its arrangement, and the need for bassoon, tuba, and harp. The young wunderkind composer/arranger, Chris Walden led the band, and the great Bobby Shew ably handled the Miles Davis chair. Closing your eyes and drinking in the beauty of this composition was pure rapture and at its conclusion, a standing ovation was well deserved.

Not to be outdone, the inimitable 90-year-old Gerald Wilson took the stage next and took the audience on a Latin jazz journey through his songbook with jazz tributes to Mexican matadors, highlighted by Viva Tirado, which Wilson shared was made more famous unpredictably, by the Mexican rock band, El Chicano.

Big Band Fiesta ended Sunday night with Kim Richmond’s able arrangement of Stan Kenton’s “Cuban Fire.” It was an apt ending to a Cuban Afro jazz weekend dedicated to the fiery conguero trio of Candido, Peraza, and Aguabella. It was a privilege to experience their conga mastery that has captivated lovers of Latin jazz for over sixty years!

– Jeff Krow

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