A history course on the progress of Afro-Cuban jazz, 82-year-old Cachao outlined the basics of the mambo and 64-year-old Eddie Palmieri added more structure and harmonic sophistication as the Jazz at the Bowl series got under way Wednesday.
Even when his bands aren’t 100% locked into the groove — as was the case for a good deal of this set — Cachao’s music is always fun to listen to because he keeps it simple and insistent. More often than not, the musicians would lock themselves into a two-chord vamp, with the mambo grooves flowing in a loose, dreamlike descarga (jam session) atmosphere, with the soloists exploding now and then into some riotous contrapuntal displays as if this were Cuban Dixieland.
Once, they broke with the mambo to attempt an older, stately Cuban danzon rhythm on “Isora Club,” but it was executed a bit clumsily.
Cachao remains a marvelously agile bass player, always firmly underpinning the rhythm and indulging in a madcap solo in which he offered some humorous avant-garde effects.
Now widely credited as the inventor of the mambo way back in 1939(!), Cachao had been all but forgotten until actor-fan Andy Garcia revived his career in 1993 by producing a documentary film about him. Once again, Garcia was on hand, introducing the numbers and banging happily away on cowbell and bongos.
Working with smaller forces, Palmieri’s band made more complex music, with the leader laying down a denser, jazzier harmonic foundation with synthetic strings and piano on a Kurzweil keyboard. Following the eclectic bent of its leader, Palmieri’s band proved capable of some unpredictable stylistic quirks, like the unmistakably strident rock guitar of Steve Fox and, at one point, a surprise, straight-ahead walking bass episode before the three-man percussion section kicked in again. Of the jazz soloists, trumpeter Brian Lynch impressed the most with his bravura, while guest flutist Dave Valentin’s appearances on the last two numbers were marred by a lot of windy, unaccompanied shrieking that did no one much good.
John Clayton, the series’ genial emcee, seemed a bit forlorn onstage without his Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra behind him. But in this case, the CHJO would have pulled much valuable performance time away from these two self-contained acts — and even then, there wasn’t enough time for each band to run through their entire set lists.