For a while, it looked as if opening night at the third annual Latin Jazz Festival would play to large patches of empty seats. Indeed, many were filled only when those with cheap tickets were allowed to come down into the seating area in California Plaza’s stunning outdoor Watercourt. Perhaps it was the unfamiliar location deep in downtown L.A. that kept attendance down, or the overcast weather. It couldn’t have been the strong and diverse lineup.
Things got off to a fine start with veteran bandleader/timbales player Manny Oquendo’s highly unusual 11-piece Latin jazz band. It stacks four trombones in its five-man brass section, yet the texture wasn’t at all overweight: There was plenty of fascinating interplay among the brasses, and the rhythm section was powerful enough to lift the mambos well off the ground (though Marvin Gaye’s “I Want You” was an awkward fit).
Chucho Valdes dropped in to show off his bewildering arsenal of piano fireworks, throwing in everything from Lisztian classical flash to some funk as he mixed it up with his high-energy Afro-Cuban quartet. Valdes centered his set around tunes from his latest album, “Briyumba Palo Congo” (Blue Note) — including a splashy, mostly solo excursion on “Embraceable You.”
Another Cuban rediscovery from the ranks of the Buena Vista Social Club, Eliades Ochoa delivered a short set of soaring high-tenor vocals and melodic acoustic guitar over basic, hypnotically revolving vamps. It wasn’t Latin jazz per se, but it swung — with help from the illuminated dancing fountains in the rear.
For Argentinean native Lalo Schifrin, who long ago veered off the Latin path into jazz, Hollywood, classical music and everything else, the U.S. premiere of his hourlong, six-movement “Latin Jazz Suite” — performed brilliantly by Cologne’s WDR Big Band on a new Aleph CD –was a split decision. Only in the last three movements, “Fiesta,” “Ritual” and “Manaos,” did the performance (and the piece) hit its stride, with pungent Schifrin harmonic signatures and some nasty grooves kicking in to drive trumpeter Jon Faddis’ breathtaking mastery of Dizzy Gillespie idioms, as well as the substantial bop tenor sax of David Sanchez. Earlier on, “Pampas” sounded like a generic movie theme and “Martinique” seemed like a neighbor of “St. Thomas.”