Sharps & Flats

Steeped in Crescent City musical voodoo, Los Hombres Calientes reconfigure jazz in the city where it was born.

Published November 16, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

The classicists of the jazz world, led by Wynton Marsalis and his crew over at Lincoln Center, maintain their high profiles by reheating Duke and churning out dance scores and other extended compositions in the Ellington mold. And the trumpet man wards off potential criticism of his intentions by overwhelming us with eight new CDs and a seven-disc box set, all in one year. It's a living.

Meanwhile, bubbling up back home in New Orleans is a project co-led by Jason, the Marsalis you probably don't know ... yet. Los Hombres Calientes is a groove-intensive collective that allies the budding trap-kit master Marsalis and young trumpet sensation Irvin Mayfield -- both in their early 20s -- with a ringer, Headhunters percussionist Bill Summers.

These players, steeped in Crescent City musical voodoo, are bent on exploring the rhythmic intricacies and tonal colors of the Afro-Cuban, Latin and African traditions that have so influenced Big Easy innovators. Jazz's future, you might say, is being reconfigured in the port city where its foundations were conceived by slaves in Congo Square in the 1800s.

Los Hombres Calientes, with singer-percussionist Yvette Summers, pianist Victor "Red" Atkins and bassist Edwin Livingston, is rapidly winning over audiences at home and, increasingly, around the world. The band's ascendancy isn't exactly a shock. The players have consistently managed to blow out the last two editions of the Jazz and Heritage Festival, and have continued to dispense fuel for the feet and inspiration for the spirit at clubs all over town.

Marsalis and Summers deliver big and little beats with complex yet accessible polyrhythms. Mayfield, meanwhile, uses his solos to zigzag under, over and through the changes. The trumpeter, who earned raves for his recent "Live at the Blue Note" (Half Note), may be the city's next great horn, following in the footsteps of Nicholas Payton, Terence Blanchard and, yes, Wynton. Jason Marsalis, too, has shown sparks as a leader and composer, as evidenced by his own "Year of the Drummer" CD.

"Vol. 2," the follow-up to the sextet's 1998 debut disc (recorded after the band had played but a handful of shows), is artier and more ambitious than its predecessor. A three-part "Cuban Suite" opens the record with a mournful string quartet, slides into a crawling yambu and slips into son, mambo and comparsa. The strings reappear on "Tangeaux-zon," a tango with an African bridge.

The world tour also leads to Brazil, for the intoxicating samba and batucada of "Blues De Enredo," and later to Jamaica, with "Rasta Renegade," its sticky accents glued together by Ronald Markham's Hammond B-3. "Fongo Sunk" was inspired by the music of Afro-Cuban drummer Chongito and the brooding call-and-response piece "Alabi Oyo E" is named for the king of the ancient Nigerian city of Oyo.

American pop enters the picture, too, with a mellow remake of the R&B hit "Feel Like Makin' Love" and a two-fer closer that has the remarkably flexible outfit laying down seriously soulful grooves for marvelous reinventions of Herbie Hancock's "Chameleon" (Summers appeared on the original) and George Clinton's "We Want the Funk."

By the end of the record, it's pretty clear that Los Hombres Calientes are wandering rhythmatists of the highest order. With the kind of luck created by players with the last name Marsalis, "Vol. 2" might one day be treasured as a prime example of the increasing, creatively stimulating cross-fertilization of jazz, and the way its earthy roots recombined with various bits of post-bop, blues and funk as the century ran down.

By Philip Booth

Philip Booth is a freelance writer in Tampa, Fla.

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