It was not exactly what I’d expected. I was primed to hear Chucho Valdes play, among other things, a piece with the Chico O’Farrill Afro-Cuban Jazz Band, newly written for him by the band’s leader, pianist Arturo O’Farrill. Valdes, however, was in Cuba. He had been in Madrid but, as we were told, he was taken ill and went back to Havana. Fortunately, on short notice, O’Farrill was able to get Paquito D’Rivera – and his alto saxophone and clarinet.
The first half of the concert was devoted to the Spanish Harlem Orchestra led by pianist Oscar Hernandez, a man who in the past has collaborated with Ruben Blades and Willie Colon. This was torrid, high-decibel salsa with timbales, conga, bongos, string bass, two trumpets, two trombones and baritone sax plus a sonero coro: three men at the front microphone, singing, dancing and playing other percussion instruments. It was exciting, constantly-in-motion music and the singers were passionate, although my limited Spanish did not allow me to understand the lyrics.
Interspersed were jazz solos by the brassmen and baritone player Mitch Frohman, who you may know as the leader of the Bronx Horns. He also doubled on flute. Trombonists Jimmy Bosch, a big name in salsa circles, and Dan Regan blew exuberantly, and one number featured a high-register trumpet battle between Tony Barrero and, doubling from the O’Farrill band, John Walsh. Introspective solos were not the order of the night.
The audience, with many members from New York’s Puerto Rican community, enjoyed themselves thoroughly.
The crowd didn’t react quite so enthusiastically in the early part of the second half. Part of the problem was that the O’Farrill band’s rhythm and percussion sections were dominant over the poorly miked saxophone, trombone and trumpet sections. Anyone who has heard the O’Farrill organization at Birdland knows that it has that singular, big-band ability to sock you in the gut with its collective power. This didn’t get through to the assembly until later in the set.
An early bridge was built by the musicianship and personality of D’Rivera, who opened the proceedings as guest soloist. He made contact with the audience by peering out at them with his clarinet as a telescope. Then he explained that he would begin by playing “Samba for Carmen,” stating that it was not for Carmen Miranda but rather that had written it some time ago for Carmen McRae. In a buoyant arrangement by Chico O’Farrill, D’Rivera danced on clarinet and alto sax.
Graciela, the 88-year-old diva who for many years lit it up with the Machito Orchestra, may have walked out with the aid of a cane but she hasn’t lost the fire in her clarion voice or her sense of humor. The crowd immediately responded as she revisited some of her signature songs such as “Delerio” and “Kumbiritibi.”
Then the full ensemble came back into play with “Gone City,” a number that Chico O’Farrill wrote for Machito with vivid solos from trumpeters Arturo Sandoval and Michael Mossman. The sound finally began to improve at this point. (Perhaps the engineers were listening at last.) It really blossomed as the band did its most impressive playing of the night on Chico O’Farrill’s “Manteca Suite,” a four-movement opus written in 1954, variations on Dizzy Gillespie’s 1947 “Manteca.” Trumpeter Jim Seeley’s extended role in the last movement was outstanding.
Graciela returned with the ballad “Involvidables” and stoked it up once more on “Ay Jose” with D’Rivera opening his solo by cleverly working in “The Peanut Vendor.”
The audience had been completely won over and demanded an encore. It got “Algo de Fumar,” with Graciela, D’Rivera and the trumpet section battling in the stratosphere and Louis Kahn laying down his trombone to swing on the violin.