The new Conga Room, with its decor patterned after Havana nighteries of the 1940s, might well have found its perfect performance partner in Cubanismo, trumpeter Jesus Alemany’s big band celebrating the son, recognized as the root of Cuban dance music. The 14-piece orchestra executes every note with pinpoint precision — no histrionics, no disco beats and no indifferent musicianship. It’s all pure and loaded with integrity.
Cuban music, more so than commercialized hybrids of the 1980s, hits American ears with a sense of familiarity: Dizzy Gillespie borrowed heavily from Cuban music in the 1940s and ’50s in bebop and big band settings; early rock ‘n’ roll, particularly acts from New Orleans, incorporated the rumba and cha-cha with frequency; and in the pre-Castro era, developments in Cuban dance music were heavily influenced by American jazz. Rykodisc recording artists Cubanismo head back to that pre-Castro era for inspiration, expressing the joy that was found in the streets and ballrooms following World War II when Havana was a mecca for tourism, sugar and cigars.
Wednesday, at the first of two sold-out nights at the Conga Room, the London-based Alemany introduced numbers with unbridled enthusiasm, reserving an air of hallowedness for the suave rhythm of the pilon, a generally ignored percussion-heavy style from the ’60s. The 80-minute show was split equally between their son-dominated debut, “Cubanismo!,” and its sequel, “Malembe,” which was recorded in Havana and features half the musicians in the touring unit.
Alemany’s trumpet and the group’s simple and buoyant vocals dominated the evening as they moved through variations on the son and rumba, exploding as a unit on a mambo and a number that took its cues from Bo Diddley’s modified rumba beats. Pianist Ignacio Herrera lent the most Americanized (re: jazz-influenced) solos, yet he kept each taut and to the point. Equally tantalizing was Pancho Amat’s work on the tres, the smallish Cuban guitar that Latin groups such as Los Lobos have used to great effect.
Cuban acts, at this point, register high on the curiosity meter, just as African acts of the late ’80s made their first sojourns to the U.S. This being Cubanismo’s second trip, one senses that the band has the staying power and the musicianship to work its way up the American ladder of success. In this case, it starts with the music, and the sales, so far, have followed.