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Willie Martinez & La Familia Sextet

Willie Martinez

J. Walter Hawkes

Misha Tsiganov

Jennifer Vincent

photos by
Andrzej (Andre) Pilarczyk

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The Whisperdome
Schenectady, NY
April 24, 2009

by Tom Pierce

Dr Jose Cruz, visionary founder and tireless President of Jazz/Latino, Inc proudly opened the concert by announcing this as the third anniversary of this culturally enriching organization, dedicated to the promotion of jazz and Latin Jazz in the Capitol District.

As he introduced each individual of La Familia, one could extrapolate from the diverse international origins of the six members, that the band's name referred not only to the reverence the leader, drummer/vocalist Willie Martinez has for his own family (as later shown in a number of his compositions) and for the closeness of the Band as a family; but also the universal family of man. Mr Martinez' origins are Puerto Rico and New York City; pianist Misha Tsiganov was born in St Petersburg, Russia; Jennifer Vincent on bass hails from Oregon; Percussionist Renato Thoms calls Colon, Panama home; Weiz, Austria was the birthplace of saxophonist Max Schweiger; and J. Walter Hawkes, the trombonist, originated in Pascagoula, Mississippi.

The sextet wasted no time, with their uptempo opener (their latest CD's title track, “After Winter Spring”), composed by Mr Martinez, in demonstrating that a percolating groove was the powerful bond that held this musical family together. Strong solo turns on baritone sax, trombone and piano with effective accents and sparkling interplay by the rhythm section with the frontline made it clear that the audience was in for an uplifting evening of prototypical, fiery New York City Afro-Cuban Jazz.

Vocalist Bobby Hebb's 1966 classic composition “Sunny” that has been covered in numerous genres by hundreds of artists from Frank Sinatra (on a wonderful album with Duke Ellington) to Jose Feliciano and Oscar Peterson was an interesting change of pace. It gave Mr Martinez an opportunity to show his passionate, but pleasing vocal delivery; and was also highlighted by a moving Flute solo from Max Schweiger. Martinez' singing was even more poignantly displayed on “Plazos Traicioneros”, a beautiful bolero on their 2005 CD “Family” that reminded this listener of the haunting style of legendary romantic balladeers, such as Beny Moré and Tito Rodriquez.

Two Martinez compositions - the introspective “Helen” (for his Mother) and swinging “Cayey” (dedicated to his grandparents who migrated from Puerto Rico to Brooklyn) emphasized the theme of “Family”, with stirring statements by all soloists. The diversified 90 minute concert was also highlighted by an appropriately torridly played composition (“Anthony”) by the very facile pianist, Misha Tsiganov that was dedicated to the late ground-breaking drummer initially with Miles Davis, Tony Williams.

As with all Latin jazz bands, a vital component is the driving, but flexible and supportive rhythm section; and that was certainly the case with the excellent pianist, bassist, drummer and percussionist (who was exuberantly engaging on both Congas and Bongos) in La Familia. The leader showed his selfless nature by limiting himself to only one extended drum solo, appropriately on “Blues for Willie”, composed by Max Schweiger, in tribute to him. But the consistently strong, thick thrust of the rhythm section was balanced by the unusually bottom-heavy sound of the frontline baritone sax and trombone, who were both exciting improvisers.

The audience was enthusiastically appreciative throughout the evening of the warm, energetic, but melodic approach of the entire band, who demonstrated why each has been employed by a large number of renowned bandleaders in New York City and elsewhere. Dr Cruz again clearly demonstrated his ability to select exceptional Latin Jazz talent.

Tom Pierce has had a burning passion for Jazz for over 45 years, initiated and fueled by seeing live in New York City, starting in the early 1960's, virtually every major artist still performing. He's been very happily living in Guilderland the last 8 years, as an active retiree sharing his love of music by writing online reviews for a number of web sites, preparing DVD presentations to various groups, co-Hosting Radio programs showcasing his favorite artists and busily supporting A Place for Jazz and the SwingTime Society in a variety of ways.