Review: Fusion jazz graces Grant Recital Hall

Grant Recital Hall was packed so densely Saturday night that you could barely walk down the aisles without trampling seated students and professors anxiously awaiting Gabriel Alegría and his Afro-Peruvian Jazz ensemble.

The lights dimmed and the show began, curiously enough, with a lone cowbell.

Emerging one by one and drumming on cajones (hollow wooden boxes), cajitas (little boxes) or quijadas (a horse jawbone-turned rattle), the band created a polyrhythmic medley that pounded with the trancelike, intoxicating rhythms of traditional coastal Peruvian percussion.

Although Afro-Latin jazz music from Brazil and Cuba has been established for generations, the Afro-Peruvian jazz idiom has until recently been confined to the World Music realm, and Alegría’s band is introducing its fusion style into mainstream commercial jazz.

“We’re not the first,” Alegría said. “But what we’re doing differently is using a jazz inflection and attitude.”

“Un Rezo,” Alegría’s 2002 debut album, features this distinctive blend of traditional coastal Peruvian percussive rhythmic patterns and contemporary jazz.

The group – based in the jazz-salsa scene in Lima, Peru – consists of Alegría on trumpet and fugal horn, Laura Andrea Leguía on tenor saxophone, Jocho Velazquez on acoustic guitar, Joscha Oetz on double bass, Hugo Alcázar on drums and Freddy “Huevito” Lobatón playing cajones and other percussion. The ensemble met for the first time in December 2005 but, as Oetz pointed out, Lima’s jazz scene is “small but interesting” and “everyone knows everyone.” The group has been touring around the East Coast for two weeks and will also play at the University of Southern California and in the Los Angeles area before returning home to Lima.

The group broke into a fiery interpretation of Miles Davis’ “So Near, So Far,” played with a Peruvian festejo groove. “Festejo means celebration,” joked Alegría in an earlier interview, “and it’s all about erotic fun.” The band moved right along into an incredible rendition of George Gershwin’s “Summertime,” played to a scorching landó groove. The raunchy horn melody crooned over punctuating rhythm section hits. Though the night featured many cleverly reworked standards – including Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” and Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints” – the set included originals by Alegría and others from their upcoming release.

Throughout the performance the band exuded a relaxed and carefree onstage presence. Lobatón, probably the most animated character of the group, chuckled and bantered freely with Alcazár as they playfully faced off in alternating solos on “Summertime.” At times the musicians looked as if they were caught in a trance: brows furrowed in concentration, they yelled exclamations and laughed and joked in Spanish mid-performance.

Despite the light-hearted camaraderie onstage, it was obvious that the members are masterful, top-caliber musicians. Alegría’s fugal horn solo on “El Mar” pierced the rhythm section’s foreboding, moody soundscape with soaring trills and bold melodic lines. “Buscando a Huelito” started as a tribute to the post-bop traditions of 50s-era Charles Mingus with the independent, contrasting horn and sax lines moving back and forth between syncopated unison and embittered dissonance. Alcazár, Velazquez and Oetz seamlessly transformed the groove from atmospheric ambience to a sultry relaxed landó tempo and a blisteringly fast swing throughout every song. Leguía’s robust sax solos had a breathy yet assertive tone, and throughout each song Lobatón’s unrelenting hand drumming gave a unique pulse and drive to each solo.

Perhaps the most memorable solo of the night involved no instruments at all, when Lobatón, a three-time national Zapateo champion, performed this traditional Peruvian tap-dance, which was peppered with jumping, thigh-slapping and boot and Charlie Chaplin-esque gesturing.

After receiving a cheering, standing ovation, the band regrouped onstage for arguably the best song of the night, the explosive “Footprints.” Oetz’s solitary bass purred with a pensive introduction, soon joined by Alegría’s sizzling fugal horn line. The remaining members joined in with a tight, syncopated groove in which the entire ensemble seemed to rhythmically mesh into a unified sound. The organic polyrhythms and the band’s trademark sudden changes in dynamics and form are unlikely to be forgotten by anyone who attended the show.