What's in a name? Not always what it seems. Latin jazz groups are proliferating in all directions--some more Latin, some more jazz.
Yet one of the season's most engaging, unpretentious evenings of Latin jazz was provided at Spazio on Monday by pianist Donald Vega, leading a group that made no claims to be anything other than the Donald Vega Quartet.
Interestingly, the group--performing in the Sherman Oaks jazz restaurant's newly upgraded performance area--was actually an ad hoc ensemble, assembled for this particular gig. That's the sort of game plan that can result in musical disaster, yet as sometimes happens in the creatively spontaneous environment of jazz, the four players--Vega, bassist John Belsaguy, drummer Tony Austin and conga player Angel Rodriguez--came together with remarkably fluent collectivity. And most of what they played fell well within the arena of Latin jazz.
Vega opened his set, in fact, by transforming the shifting harmonies of John Coltrane's "Giant Steps" into a floating bossa nova. Charlie Haden's "Our Spanish Love Song" added the soaring lyricism of a classic bolero, and the up-tempo, bebop trial-by-speed number "Cherokee" became a surging samba.
It's been nearly five years since Vega was at dire risk of being returned to his native Nicaragua as a consequence of the Immigration Reform Act of 1996. With the aid of friends and supporters, he is now a legal resident and a graduate of the USC School of Music.
And that's a good thing for jazz, because Vega is a first-rate musical talent, his skill and imagination improving by leaps and bounds, fully capable of bringing cohesion and compatibility to the diverse elements of jazz and Latin rhythms. His performance, in addition, underscored that Vega--who clearly has something original and compelling to say--is more than ready for his first recording as a leader.