copyright © 2003 Philip Booth
Originally published in the Miami New Times
"We're not a Latin band, we're not a jazz band, we're not a funk band, we're not a reggae band. We're all of that," Los Hombres Calientes percussionist Bill Summers says from New Orleans about his Grammy-nominated music collective. "You'll see that people in worldbeat play only one kind of music. But very seldom do you see groups that have such a wide and diverse platform. With us, you're gonna hear some samba, some Cuban stuff, some reggae stuff -- all these different forms."
Celebrative, communal music making, of one variety or another, has always been at the heart of Los Hombres Calientes, co-led by Summers and young trumpet firebrand Irvin Mayfield. On a recent trip to Florida, the group opened its arms to a pair of regional Latin-music favorites -- Afro-Cuban conga wizard Gumbi Ortiz, aka Al Di Meola's regular percussionist, and Ortiz's sometime collaborator, singer Freddie Montes, a cousin of Cuban piano great Chucho Valdes. The onstage musical connections were immediate, electric and entrancing; Ortiz wound up singing and/or playing on three of the most intoxicating tracks from Los Hombres Calientes' new "Vol. 4: Vodou Dance" album.
The band, which follows Latin and jazz themes and rhythms back to their African roots, unofficially got its start as a series of low-profile jam sessions: Mayfield and former group drummer Jason Marsalis, the youngest of the music-playing siblings from the famous Crescent City family, hung out at the Summers Multi-Ethnic Institute of Arts, for informal lessons and musical/spiritual camaraderie. The musician and musicologist, classically trained but best known for his work with jazz-funk godfathers The Headhunters (recently reassembled), unexpectedly found simpatico young players.
"When this thing first started, Irvin had gone to New York, and was hanging out with Wynton (Marsalis) and got involved with Chucho (Valdes). When he came back home, he had been turned on to Chucho (Valdes), Puntilla (Orlando Rios), to Chocolate (Alfredo Armenteros), to Cachao (Israel Lopez)." Jason suggested that Irvin pay a visit to Summers. "He came by and said, 'I'd like to combine my gig with you.' " Summers, Mayfield, Marsalis, bassist David Pulphus, pianist Victor "Red" Atkins and percussionist-singer Yvette Bostic-Summers, Bill's then-wife, in February 1998 played noted jazz club Snug Harbor, quickly recorded a CD, and grafted on to Mayfield's set during the Jazz and Heritage Festival that spring.
Los Hombres' high-energy performances -- Texas bassist Edwin Livingston soon replaced Pulphus -- and recordings immediately began to attract attention, generating notice on Billboard's jazz charts and in the magazine's Latin Music Awards, and laudatory stories and poll winnings in the pages of Down Beat, Jazziz, Jazz Times and other publications. Marsalis left to devote more time to his trio job with pianist Marcus Roberts after 1999's "Vol. 2"; he was replaced by a rotating cast of drummers, including Jaz Sawyer, Horacio "El Negro" Hernandez, and current regular Ricky Sebastian. The band has additionally mutated since, with the departure of Yvette, and the addition of a three-piece horn section.
But that communal vibe remains the same, as underscored by the latest disc. "Vodou Dance" is a sonic travelogue documenting, in part, the explorations of Summers and Mayfield. The two, expanding on a strategy they successfully employed for 2001's "Vol. 3: New Congo Square," traveled across the Caribbean, to Trinidad, Haiti and Cuba, packing ADAT recorders, a mixing board, amplifiers, cables and microphones, in search of the holy grooves -- rhythms that naturally linked to those from New Orleans.
For the mellow, decidedly enchanting "Trinidad Nocturne," written and arranged by Mayfield, the two Los Hombres leaders tracked down the Pamberi Steel Orchestra from a phone number picked up at a local music store, and recorded the 40-piece ensemble in a house several miles from downtown Port of Spain.
"When we got there, the pan players were people of all ages -- women, young girls, middle-age cats, and in the room that we recorded in there were at least 100 pans," Summers recounts. "The place was indoor/outdoor, like a huge hangar with no front door. You could look out over the mountains -- the back of it opened up. We hung mikes from the rafters, hooked it all up. Irvin wrote all the music on the blackboard, we rehearsed them two or three times and then cut it. They were perfect. They read it like a symphony orchestra."
Summers and Mayfield took a similar D.I.Y. approach for the tracks recorded in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. "Jean Raymond (the drummer) had this house in the ghetto, the real ghetto -- no street lights, no house lights, no electricity," Summers said. "We told them we wanted to record some music, so . . . an old guy came over with a bail of wire and wired the house within an hour, with outlets and lights switches. They put a generator far enough away from the house (not to cause a sonic disturbance)."
Back home, the travelers and their bandmates dug into bluesy acoustic funk on "Creole Groove" with the help of guest drummer Shannon Powell (Harry Connick, Jr., Kermit Ruffins), and borrowed the second-line rhythms and street chants of Mardi Gras Indians for "Old Time Indians" and "Wild Tchoupitoulas," with input, variously, from Big Chief Bo Dollis of the Wild Magnolias, Big Chief Donald Harrison (aka, the saxophonist), Meters bassist George Porter Jr. and percussionist Cyril Neville. They hooked up with singer Davell Crawford, Porter, Powell and others for the Meters-like "Jocimo," and briefly checked into a gospel service, with the Rev. Eddie Payne of Greater Provident Baptist Church, for "I'll Fly Away" and the a cappella "I Wouldn't Have Religion,"
Summers, happy to claim New Orleans as "the northernmost Caribbean country," hopes Los Hombres' wide-spectrum approach to making art music will tip listeners to the group's true mission. "I don't want to be a jazz band," he says. "I have such a problem being pigeonholed that way. This band is a dance band. This band is a band for your soul. This band is a band to make peace on earth."
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