The vibraphone-centered Latin jazz sound of the late Cal Tjader lives on in the sounds of the Estrada Brothers. Playing to a standing-room-only crowd at Steamers on Saturday, the six-piece band, led by vibist Ruben Estrada, recalled the smooth grooves and cool harmonics of Tjader's ensembles.
But the Estradas are not just some Johnny-come-lately tribute band. The Ventura County-based ensemble has been performing under the family name in Southern California for about 40 years. This lineup includes Ruben's brother Henry on sax and flute and Ruben's son, Ruben "Cougar" Estrada Jr., on drums. Las year, Milestone released the group's first major-label recording, "Get Out of My Way."
The Tjader connection was most apparent Saturday as the group performed the vibist's "Curacao." The tune became a vehicle for Ruben's meticulously crafted vibraphone work and the driving percussion from Ruben Jr. and conguero Raul Rico Jr. The centerpiece unison blend of vibes and Joe Rotondi Jr.'s piano rang seductively against this tightly woven rhythmic backdrop.
The Estradas excel at turning familiar material into something that seems their own. A salsa-fired version of the Rodgers and Hart classic "Blue Moon" featured Henry's dancing flute lines with the dual accompaniment of piano and vibes. Replete with thematic twists, the number boasted a crisp piano solo from Rotondi, who finished off with a strong double time as the drums and congas rippled behind him.
Henry Estrada took a balladeer's approach to his music, not fast or fancy and definitely melody-minded. His tenor managed to say a lot within a limited range and his alto play on brother Ruben's ballad "Nu Image" was especially lyrical.
Though the band's original material lacked the punch and direction of its covers, that music succeeded on its drive and rhythmic propulsion--matched by the cool resourcefulness of its soloists. Their Steamers appearance demonstrated that the Estradas rank among Southern California's best Latin jazz bands.