At first, it didn’t seem like Latin jazz night at the Hollywood Bowl — not with the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra warming up the 8,844 spectators with some matter-of-fact Basie-inspired charts and nary a Latin percussion instrument within earshot. But what Jelly Roll Morton called the “Spanish tinge” was not long in arriving — and it dominated an evening of music that grew stronger and more astonishing as it unfolded.
Indeed, it was the Clayton-Hamilton ensemble, sleekly purring in solid midseason form, that slowly triggered the program’s transition toward the Caribbean. First, the Spanish vocal interpolation in Bobby Rodriguez’s otherwise workmanlike paean to Louis Armstrong on “You Rascal You,” then a depth-charged rendition of Gerald Wilson’s “Viva Tirado” set the table.
Then Poncho Sanchez, billed merely as a “host” but with fingers taped and ready to play, introduced Son Mayor, which although based in L.A. is a thoroughly traditional exponent of Cuban popular music. The lead singers, Mirley Espinoza and Johnny Ortiz (part of a battalion of six Ortiz brothers in this 13-person band), are young and full of energy; the band pumps out loud, fluid vamps with tight predictable riffs and little room for improvisation. Their best number by far was the last and least typical tune in the set, a sparer, more subtle, more propulsive sample of Cuban changui (country) music, with Sanchez percolating as guest conguero.
The Cuban theme continued with another visit from Chucho Valdes, who tours the U.S. so frequently that you have to remind yourself that there’s still an embargo on Cuban exports supposedly in place. Indeed, he is still forced to release his albums through the auspices of EMI Canada, which thankfully isn’t concerned with political nonsense.
He came this time with a new frightfully youthful-looking band, different from the one on his latest CD “Live at the Village Vanguard” (Blue Note) and able to give him plenty of complex, cooking support. And Valdes continues to show us new facets of his unlimited technique — the almost atonal hammering and long vamp on “Birdland” in “Con Poco Coca,” the ear-warping right-hand runs over the steady “son” left-hand rhythm in “Son in C Minor,” the can-you-match-this game with his prodigiously adept conguero Adel Gonzalez Gomes.
For a closer, John Clayton tried something brave — combining all three bands, plus Sanchez, in a carefully integrated arrangement of Tito Puente’s “Picadillo.” Amazingly, it worked; the massive band played together with gusto and a powerhouse sound, the big personalities getting chances to shine without hogging the spotlight.