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JAZZ REVIEW

Fort Apache Band Spans Stylistic and Ethnic Lines

September 30, 1996|DON HECKMAN

Jerry Gonzalez describes his Fort Apache Band as an ensemble that "can deal equally with the complexities of Afro-Cuban rhythms and bebop."

And he proved his point Saturday night in a virtually nonstop, irrepressibly rhythmic set at the Ash Grove on the Santa Monica Pier. Gonzalez did so--as he always does--by using himself as the model for the jazz man as Latin rhythm exponent. Seated before a semicircle of congas, dark-eyed and intense in his black cap and denim jacket, Gonzalez laid out the rhythms and energized the swing. That task completed, he reached behind his drums, pulling out a trumpet, occasionally a flugelhorn, and ripped off muted solos out of the Miles Davis style of the mid-'60s.

There were few announcements, and few pauses. One heavily rhythmic number segued into another, with familiar lines such as Wayne Shorter's "Footprints" intermittently surfacing through the roaring percussive mix. In addition to Gonzalez, pianist Larry Willis was a continuously persuasive soloist. His work with the group's rhythm section alone would have made a convincing booking for most jazz clubs.

But this was not music simply made to keep the feet tapping. The subtle interplay between the members of the band moved the sounds through a spectrum of emotions, from sensual, late-night rhythms to cutting-edge improvisations and sheer, driving, straight-ahead swing.

Which raises the question of why Gonzalez and his group, who have continuously demonstrated their worth both as a major jazz ensemble and for their enticing synthesis of jazz and Latin rhythms, have had such a low-profile visibility. Their two-night (they also appeared on Sunday) performance at the Ash Grove reportedly was the band's West Coast debut, even though the group has existed as an important force for more than a decade.

Given the growing interest in jazz, it may be time to fully recognize Gonzalez and the Fort Apache Band. This is a group that can play almost anything, do it with substance and character, and reach across the stylistic and ethnic lines that crisscross contemporary music. It deserves a far wider hearing.

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