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ALL THAT JAZZ

A brand of salsa with Scandinavian roots

An out-of-the-blue invitation to join a mambo band changed Susie Hansen's life.

May 03, 2003|Don Heckman | Special to The Times

There she is, blond hair flipping as she swings her violin around, vigorously accenting her phrases, moving in time with the rhythm. It's Susie Hansen in action, leading her eight-piece band, playing Latin jazz and salsa.

Latin jazz and salsa?

Wait a minute.

A blond, female violinist of Scandinavian descent leading her own jazz and salsa band.

Is something out of sync there?

Not at all.

It is, in fact, exactly what Hansen has been doing for more than a decade, fronting one of the Southland's busiest ensembles, playing more than 200 dates a year. Her newest recording, "May the Salsa Never End," has been selling well for a jazz release on a small independent label, and the Susie Hansen Band has just successfully concluded its first appearances in the New York City area.

Asked about the seeming contradictions in genre and appearance, Hansen just laughs.

"People don't seem to think you can play Cuban music if you're not born to it," she says. "At the very least you're supposed to be Hispanic. But there's plenty of indication, and plenty of players, proving that neither of those things are true. So I just let our music speak for itself."

Which is exactly what will be happening this weekend, when her band makes a string of appearances around town as part of the lead-in to Cinco de Mayo. The music will display the band's appealing blend of salsa and Latin jazz, a mix appropriate for both listening and dancing.

"The title song of our new album is really a Latin jazz song disguised as a salsa -- a dance tune with three jazz solos," she says. "We're kind of unique in a way, covering both bases. A lot more Latin jazz than some salsa bands, but with more salsa and more dance orientation than some Latin jazz bands."

Latin jazz and salsa were the last things on Hansen's mind when she was growing up in Chicago, the daughter of a violinist with the Chicago Symphony. In fact, she didn't discover anything beyond classical music until she was a senior in college and began playing in a rock group. Her affection for Latin jazz was triggered a few years later.

"I had been leading my own band in Chicago, playing straight-ahead jazz -- bebop, swing, some Brazilian," she says. "Then we played a big concert, and the band before us was a mambo band. They stuck around and listened to us, after which the leader said he wanted me to join his band. And that's how it all began."

Moving to Los Angeles in the late '80s, Hansen was soon gigging with local units led by Francisco Aguabella, Bobby Matos and others.

"But I quickly figured I had to have my own band," she recalls, "because everybody drove me crazy with the way they ran their bands. But I think that my path was really determined when I was first asked to join that Latin band in Chicago. My first response was to say, 'Me? What do I know about mambo?'

"And the bandleader said, 'Oh, you'll get it and you'll love it.' And he was right."

The Susie Hansen Band performs this afternoon at the San Clemente Cinco de Mayo Festival, and tonight at Lunaria in Century City. It also performs Sunday afternoon in a Playboy Jazz Festival event at the Beverly Hills Civic Center and Sunday night at the La Puente Cinco de Mayo Festival. For information, see www.susiehansen.com.

Teddy Edwards: The One and Only. Last summer I was standing in the middle of Central Avenue in front of the Dunbar Hotel and listening to the exhilarating sounds of the Central Avenue Jazz Festival. My companion, for a few minutes, was the slender, ever-elegant saxophonist Teddy Edwards. Looking from one direction to another, he gave me a mini-history of the once-fabulous avenue, pointing out the past locations of venues in which the creme de la creme of jazz artists performed nightly from the '20s to the '50s.

Teddy was generous with his time, a bit amused at my engrossed reaction to what was, for me, a compelling view of jazz history, to him simply the recollection of another chapter in his fascinating life. He also referred to a kind of running joke between us. In a review of his brass-string ensemble, I had wondered whether the passages for the string section had originally been written for a saxophone section.

Teddy was quick to point out that the segments had been composed specifically for strings -- how could I possibly think otherwise? From then on, when we met, he would manage to make a whimsical but good-natured reference to the error of my ways.

The last time I saw Teddy was at a Musicians Union benefit in February. He looked thin and wan, and it seemed clear that the end was approaching. But he had survived so much over the past decade, and his will to continue his ever-creative productivity was so strong, that I kept hoping that yet another miracle would take place. It wasn't to be, and the jazz world lost one more seminal figure last week. He died at 78 after a long bout with prostate cancer.

His recordings and his music will always be with us, of course. For anyone who had the good fortune to know Teddy, the sound of his playing and the quality of his writing will be enhanced by the memory of his humor, his conversation and his ineffable life force.

A celebration of his life takes place from 1 to 6 p.m. Sunday at the Musicians Union, 817 Vine St., Hollywood. The Brass-String Ensemble will perform, as will a variety of other players. There'll also be tributes and recollections from numerous musicians, including Gerald Wilson, Ernie Andrews, Jean Diamond, Billy Mitchell, Frank Capp, Art Hillery and Larance Marable, along with DJs Chuck Niles and James Janisse. There will be no admission, although donations to Compton College will be accepted in Teddy Edwards' name. Information: Natalie Chatters (323) 291-9959.

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