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Energized by Cuban timba

'Long John' Oliva's group moves beyond salsa-based style.

October 16, 2002|Don Heckman | Special to The Times

Juanito "Long John" Oliva is probably best known to the wider music audience for his stirring percussion work with the guitar duo Strunz and Farah. But the Havana-born tumbador has surfaced in a variety of other areas since he first arrived in the United States via the 1980 Mariel boat lift. Among the highlights: a stretch with Willie Bobo (who coined the nickname "Long John"), and performances and recordings with Arturo Sandoval, Jackson Browne and Kenny Loggins.

On Monday night, he brought his own group, the Long John Oliva Afro-Cuban Timba Jazz Septet, to the Jazz Bakery. With his seven-piece ensemble, Oliva has combined the energies of the rapidly emerging Cuban timba style with straight-ahead jazz riffing and extended improvisations.

Although he largely omitted the rap element that is present in most Cuban timba, he employed bassist Hector Ferreiro Jr. in the freely rhythmic approach typical of the genre.

The result was a fascinating new perspective on Latin jazz, one that moved well beyond the locked-in rhythms and characteristic call-and-response patterns of salsa-based jazz.

Although Oliva and his conga drums were placed front and center, he played an organizing, rather than a solo role. Often deferring to Ferreiro, allowing him plenty of solo space, Oliva occasionally signaled in his primary soloists -- the bombastic pianist Fermin Sifontes and alto saxophonist Jose Gomez's meandering melody lines -- while driving the rhythm in combination with drummer Ariel Cuevas and timbalero Jorge Cabonel. Soaring across the top of this simmering musical stew, trumpeter Jeovany Valdes popped out high-note lead lines with consummate ease.

Occasional rough spots, both in presentation and performance, signaled the fact that Oliva is still fine-tuning his timba-based jazz. But the early results sounded impressive, as well as much needed, at a time when Latin jazz must be careful to avoid the pattern -- far too common in other areas of jazz -- of falling prey to narrowly focused revisits to overly familiar musical arenas.

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