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Chris Washburne

Ricardo Rodriguez

Diego Lopez

Barry Olsen

Ole Mathisen

photos by
Andrzej (Andre) Pilarczyk

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Ahora, Latin Jazz!
The Whisperdome
First Unitarian Society
Schenectady, NY
May 8, 2009

by J Hunter
In 2005, Chris Washburne & the SYOTOS Band were on the Sunday bill at Lake George Jazz Weekend, sandwiched between sets by Greg Osby and Giacomo Gates. There was just one teensy-weensy problem: Osby, the afternoon’s headliner, never showed up. Both Washburne and Gates graciously agreed to play longer – originally to give Osby more time to make the gig, but eventually it became an effort to give Lake George’s loyal following as close to a full afternoon of music as possible. The extra time gave us the chance to appreciate what great talent and insight Gates and Washburne respectively brought to that day, and to jazz in general. So when I heard Washburne and SYOTOS was going to close the third year of Dr. Jose Cruz’ excellent musical mini-series Ahora, Latin Jazz, I was all over it.
Things started slowly with Washburne and sax player Ole Mathisen playing off each other, and off the ethereal chords and sounds from their band mates as a spiraling tone poem began to take shape. Soon enough, though, Washburne started shaping a melody and the band followed him into a luxurious, romantic take on Pedro Flores’ “Obsession.” In contrast to the song’s loping beat, Mathisen spit notes out of his tenor in speedy clusters. He got with the groove, and the band’s energy went with Mathisen, though the tempo remained the same. Pianist Barry Olsen’s following solo brought the piece back to a more intimate level, though Diego Lopez’ drumming was almost martial. Conga player Cristian Rivera focused exclusively on accent work, though he would make his presence eminently known later in the evening.
Mathisen’s attack is closer to R&B than Latin – more Maceo Parker than David Sanchez. However, that really worked in the context of this band. For one thing, the Norwegian native’s clipped, focused, ‘non-traditional” attack made a great contrast to the wide-open tone of Washburne’s trombone. Washburne is a bit of a contradiction himself, in that his lead role is normally “reserved” in a Latin band for trumpeters like Arturo Sandoval. That said, the quality and energy Washburne brings as a player just knocks you flat. His closing solo on “Obsession” took a marvelously aggressive line as the band threw its weight behind him, and his formation-flying with Mathisen on the head really put a capper on the opening number.
If the music hadn’t won over the crowd, Washburne’s easy stage banter certainly would have: He told us Flores wrote “Obsession” in the 1930s, “way before it became a fragrance!” He confided that his own composition “Pink” was “inspired by two pink lines on a pregnancy test.” (Olsen played off-kilter chords over the first part of the spicy Urban-flavored number, simulating the mindset of a protagonist reeling from the knowledge that his world will be very different in just nine months.) Washburne then introduced the group’s righteous take on “Softly as in A Morning Sunrise” by saying used to suggest this for a “First Dance” when his band played wedding gigs – that is, until he actually heard the lyrics, which were about infidelity and adultery!
In the same vein, Washburne explained that the lyrics to the Old School Latin set-closer “The Peanut Vendor” was written in 1930s Cuba, where censors ruled the roost and songwriters had to keep their meanings hidden; then again, the post-Janet Jackson FCC wouldn’t have been pleased by this song’s subtext, either, and that’s putting it mildly! It was all good fun, but fun is a major component of this group. And why not? You simply can’t play Latin jazz “by the numbers.” If fun and joy aren’t part of the package – even on slower pieces like “Obsession” or Mathisen’s original ballad “Non-Spoken” – the music just falls flat.
This is why I grinned like a fool when Washburne called out “Low Rider.” The Cuban-flavored piece was a big hit in the 70s for War, a group that was all about fun. The tune’s cooking groove lent itself perfectly to the jammed-out tone of the evening: Every song clocked in around 15 minutes, though there wasn’t a moment that seemed wasted or unnecessarily stretched, and the crowd got to see why their collective résumé is filled with heavyweight employers like Tito Puente, Ray Barretto, Eddie Palmieri, Hilton Ruiz, and Gato Barbieri. (Local note: Bassist Ricardo Rodriguez backed up Joe Locke when the vibes wizard played A Place for Jazz last fall!)
“This is a cool place,” Washburne declared before his last number. “We’re coming back next week!” If that had been the case, everyone in the audience would have been there, and would probably have brought a friend or twelve. When compared to more-established concert series like APFJ or Skidmore Jazz Institute, Ahora, Latin Jazz is still in its infancy. Nonetheless, Dr. Cruz’ creation looks like it may be establishing good roots, and booking monumentally enjoyable groups like Chris Washburne & the SYOTOS Band makes those roots deeper and stronger.

J HUNTER is a former announcer/producer for radio stations in the Capital Region and the Bay Area, including KSJS/San Jose (where he was Assistant Music Director/Jazz Programming) and Q104 WQBK/Albany. He is a frequent contributor to the web site All About Jazz and to the monthly music magazine State of Mind. He currently resides in Clifton Park.