Southland talent was on full display Wednesday night at the Hollywood Bowl for "Jazz Picante," the second in the venue's series of jazz concerts. The headliners were conga drummer Poncho Sanchez, the band Tolu, singer Andy Vargas and, of course, the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra.
Despite the Latin jazz slant of the programming, however, the Clayton ensemble opened the evening with a set of tunes straight out of the jazz mainstream. Among the highlights: a spirited romp through Benny Golson's classic "Along Came Betty" via an arrangement by John Clayton, co-leader of the orchestra and artistic director of Jazz for the L.A. Philharmonic; two lovely Ellington renderings on "Star Crossed Lovers" and "Prelude to a Kiss"; and, best of all, "Blues Blowers Blues," a driving, Clayton original featuring the entire five-man woodwind section on tenor saxophone.
The orchestra finally got around to the Latin jazz theme of the night when it joined Tolu and Sanchez at the evening's close for a three-band performance of Clayton's newly composed "Tochojo"--the title combining references to Tolu, Pancho and jazz orchestra.
Tolu's impressive performance immediately raised the question of why this superb band, featuring saxophonist/clarinetist Justo Almario, trombonist Andy Martin and drummer Alex Acuna, still hasn't been signed by a major record label. Their too-brief set was an infectious example of Latin jazz at its best--not dance or salsa sounds, but music seamlessly blending the rhythms of Latin music with the spontaneity of jazz improvisation and the spirited interaction between both. And "Cumbiamba," featuring Almario on clarinet, did even more, linking traditional Latin themes.
Sanchez, originally a percussionist with Cal Tjader's pioneering Latin jazz bands, has been a Southern California musical staple for years, and with good reason. Seated behind his congas like a bearded musical guru, he brilliantly controlled the ebb and flow of a set that tossed in bits and pieces of blues, mambos, cha-chas, son and indefinable combinations of rhythm. Vargas, a young singer discovered by Clayton, revealed clear signs of having closely observed Ricky Martin. His sweet-voiced versions of "Oye Como Va" and "Sabor a Mi" suggested an incipient talent, but one still in the process of finding an original style.