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The Kansas City Star

Latin Beat Will Turn Up The Heat


30 September 2004
Copyright © 2004 The Kansas City Star. All rights reserved. 

The sound known as Latin jazz is an American invention, says one of its best representatives, trumpeter Ray Vega.

"All the music we call Latin jazz was born in New York," says Vega, a South Bronxite. "It wasn't born in Cuba or Puerto Rico or New Orleans. ... But we've got folks all over the country now doing things to expand the music."

And it's crossed many borders, he says.

"At this point, Latin jazz is developing beautifully in a lot of areas around the world. ... You've even got Scandinavian bands playing the music with enormous creativity."

We'll feel the heat of that same creative force in Kansas City this weekend, when the Latin Jazz All-Stars, featuring Vega, pianist Hilton Ruiz, flutist Dave Valentin, conga wizard Giovanni Hidalgo and others come to the Folly Theater. It's the opening concert of this year's Folly Jazz Series.

This world-class band lives up to its all-star billing, but, Vega says, it's also a working band that's a true collaboration.

"We're all leaders, we all have our own projects we're working on, yada yada yada," he says. "The good thing is, we all dig working with each other. So everybody is making the time to do this.

"Most of us have worked with Mongo Santamaria or Tito Puente, and those are two of the major voices in this music, so we have that common denominator."

Vega has been hearing the cross-fertilization of jazz and Latin music for most of his 43 years.

"When I was growing up, I was fortunate we had jazz radio and Latin radio, and they mixed the bags. You'd hear a Spanish show with Mongo on it, then the next tune was straight-up salsa. And jazz radio was great, because you'd hear Art Blakey one moment and the next, Tito Puente. The music was always floating around somewhere."

He grew up, he says, in "the poorest congressional district in the United States. But we didn't know that. We knew there were some crazy things going on around us. But I was fortunate we had a really good music program in the public school system. That really saved my life. It gave me the opportunity to delve into a career I never would have been introduced to."

He's worked with Puente, Santamaria, Ray Barretto and Celia Cruz. And he's leading critically acclaimed groups of his own now.

But in the Latin Jazz All-Stars, he's part of a constellation of leaders. Here's what Vega has to say about the other All-Stars:

Pianist Hilton Ruiz: "He's got wonderful experience in the world of bop, with George Coleman, Mary Lou Williams, Freddie Hubbard, Rahsaan Roland Kirk. But he brings his own vibe to the Latin thing. ... He brings a lot of excitement, a lot of energy, a lot of knowledge. And he writes great tunes."

Flutist Dave Valentin: "Another Bronxite like myself. ... He really likes to connect with the audience, much in the same manner that Tito Puente liked to connect with the audience. He's a Grammy Award winner, but he certainly has paid some dues out there."

Saxophonist Jorge Castro: "He's a young cat in his 20s. I haven't played with him yet. We'll see what he's got. I'm sure it'll work out."

Bassist Yunior Terry Cabrera: "He's a very fine bassist, currently working with Steve Coleman's band. He comes from one of the most important Cuban musical families; they've been musicians for generations. He plays great Latin, and he's a real good bebop player, and ... he knows how to maneuver in and out between those things."

Drummer Steve Berrios: "He's one of the geniuses of our music ... one of the first drummers to really elaborate the concept of how a drummer is supposed to play this music. He's worked with Jerry Gonzalez and the Fort Apache Band, Mongo, Tito, Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach's percussion band M'Boom, Steve Turre's group."

And, finally, conga man Giovanni Hidalgo: "He is the greatest living conga player. Without a doubt, he's the finest, and I've played with many of the great older conga players ... I've never heard anybody play like that, never in my life. He's one of the living geniuses of this music. ... He is the cat. If folks haven't seen him, they're going to flip."

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