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Fascinating, Foot-Tapping Latin Jazz


If veteran bandleader Eddie Palmieri's prediction that Latin jazz will "overwhelm the 21st century" turns out to be correct, Justo Almario and Rudy Regalado will have a lot to do with it.

Performing at the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre Saturday night in "A Grand Night of Latin Jazz," saxophonist Almario and bandleader/timbales player Regalado led their groups through a stirring, ever-fascinating collection of foot-tapping Latin jazz. And it was just as appealing in the last decade of the 20th century as it will be, assuming the accuracy of Palmieri's forecast, in the 21st.

Regalado opened the show with his 15-piece ensemble, Chevere. With a lineup of seven horns, a five-man rhythm section and three singers, the group had the firepower to generate instant heat, and it wasted no time in doing so. Energized (as it was throughout the entire set) by Regalado and fellow percussionists Michito Sanchez and Kevin Ricard, the band was a pleasure to hear on several counts.

For one thing, the arrangements by bassist Oscar Meza were models of contemporary large jazz ensemble craftsmanship, filled with swiftly changing harmonies and driving rhythms. Equally important, Chevere is a band that performs with enthusiasm and a sense of musical joy. When soloists played, their associates watched, listened carefully, and occasionally responded with shouts of approval.

The moderate-sized audience picked up on the excitement, and the interaction between musicians and crowd brought a spirited intensity to performances of a far-reaching range of Latin rhythm pieces, including works dedicated to the great Cuban bandleader Machito, a recasting of the Dizzy Gillespie classic "Manteca" (written by drummer Chano Pozo), and a showcase number (there should have been more) for the talented Venezuelan singer Tania Sanchez.

In addition to the stellar percussion section, Chevere's soloists--especially tenor saxophonist-flutist Ben Clatworthy, trombonist Mike Daigeau and pianist Joe Rotondi--were outstanding, and the trumpet section of Ramon Flores, Mario Gonzalez and Les Loveitt contributed crisp ensemble work and fiery, high-note choruses.

Although Almario is a world-class jazz artist, the group he brought to the Ford was focused almost solely upon a mix of jazz and Latin expression. Like Mongo Santamaria, Cachao and Chucho Valdez, Latin jazz pioneers he has recorded or performed with, Almario offered a multileveled music capable of keeping dancers moving while captivating the attention of jazz fans.

Playing clarinet, as well as alto and tenor saxophones, Almario was, as always, superb--a musician who still has not received the acknowledgment he deserves as a creative jazz improviser. But he had to be happy about the fact that, as his set was coming to a close, a good portion of his listening audience was on its feet, swaying in sync with the rhythm and calling for more.

Eddie Palmieri would have been delighted.

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