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Matos & Co. Shouldn’t Just Be Heard

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SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Percussionist Bobby Matos performed Saturday before a turn-away crowd at Steamers Cafe to celebrate his new recording, “Live at MOCA.” It pointed out the difference between jazz performed live and jazz heard on record. The visual aspect of seeing a band perform, especially one with multiple percussionists, adds enormously to the enjoyment of the music.

Make no mistake. Matos’ new disc documents a great live performance and, like Matos’ earlier recordings for the San Francisco-based CuBop label, represents the best of Latin jazz made in Southern California.

Matos’ six-piece Afro Latin Jazz Ensemble on the Fullerton stage was nearly identical to that appearing on the recording--the one exception being trombonist Jacques Voyement (trombonist Steve Baxter is on the CD). The live group also played a number of tunes heard on the album. But there’s just no comparison to seeing the artists actually make the music.

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Fans at Steamers were able to watch saxophonist Michael Turre gathering his breath for the next line, the stoic seriousness of bassist Rene Camacho, the head-down fervor of pianist Victor Cegarra, and the concentration of timbale-playing Matos and conguero Robertito Melendez as their hands hammered out rhythms.

A working unit of musicians, most of whom have been with Matos since his 1996 recording “Footprints,” the group develops interplay, especially between bass and percussion, as if it were second nature. This too is something that becomes apparent as one watches.

The band played a wide array of music, stretching from a 60-year-old Cuban danzon to an ultra-modern jazz piece by saxophonist Wayne Shorter. The same components applied to each: supple rhythmic support, invigorating solos and tight ensemble play.

The danzon “Barbara Milagrosa” had classical overtones with Turre’s dancing flute and a light, waltz-suggestive beat. The tune had an involved, circus-like ending typical of early Cuban popular music and was performed seamlessly here. Matos arranged Shorter’s “Ana Maria” so it opened with sultry ballad lines before turning to a minor-key Latin feel. The Bill O’Connell tune “Eclipse” was a thoroughly modern affair driven by Turre’s magical soprano lines.

In the middle of the first set, Matos lectured the crowd on the misuse of the word “salsa,” a commercial term, he said, broadly applied to Latin music and no more accurate than calling all African music Motown. The variety of the music aired here proved his point.

The first set’s most exciting tune was Turre’s “Blues Mambo for Trane and Sphere,” a bebop-fired number with a bridge straight from Eddie Harris’ now classic “Freedom Jazz Dance.” Though playing tenor, Turre avoided Coltrane-like displays of emotion, instead developing his improvisation with steady increments of power and phrase. Matos provided rhythmic counterpoints on a single cymbal while playing timbales with his free, bare hand as Melendez’s rippling conga work gave the piece frantic airs.

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Over the last few years, Matos has finally started to get the exposure (on a record label with international distribution) and recognition he deserves (the band recently won an L.A. Weekly music award as the best Latin-salsa band in Southern California).

But be thankful Matos is based here. Seeing his band is even better than just hearing it.

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