The Pedrito Martinez Group Play Rugged, Sophisticated Cuban Grooves at Lincoln Center

by delarue

The Pedrito Martinez Group are Lincoln Center favorites. Their Friday night show there felt like a block party. There was a comfortable, multi-generational, multicultural afterwork crowd in the house for the latest in the ongoing series of concerts by world-class acts from across the world of latin music. Lincoln Center calls it Vaya 63 since the atrium space is just south of 63rd Street.

The music was slinky, and raw, and irresistibly physical. With just piano, bass, percussion and lots of call-and-response vocals, Martinez kept the dancers on their feet for about an hour and a half. When a couple would sit down for a breather, another would spring up to take their place. It is physically impossible to sit still and listen to this band – your body rebels and begins to hurt. Much as there’s a gritty, no-nonsense, streetwise feel to their music, it’s also extremely sophisticated. Martinez plays a hybrid kit that includes both congas, snare, cymbals and plenty of other bangable objects. He was rocking his usual Yankees cap, this one with a bright gold metal logo.

Because he’s a generous bandleader and likes to keep company with musicians who have chops as daunting as his, Martinez switched to cowbell while his longtime co-percussionist Jhair Sala took a turn on the congas: it turned out to be the most boomingly adrenalizing solo of the night.

Throughout the set, they teased the crowd with false endings. Pianist Edgar Pantoja-Aleman opened the show with a display of elegant classically-tinged phrasing before buckling down into energetically tumbling salsa riffs and cascades. Meanwhile, bassist Sebastian Natal played with a growly, incisive tone, often spicing his hypnotic lines with hints of reggae or bachata. While the clave was always present, it also wasn’t ever completely straight up – there was always something going on between the beats, or against the beat, not to mention the constant jousting between Martinez and Sala. They hit a quasi-triplet gallop midway through which brought the rhythmic drive to a peak. They finally led the crowd in a familiar one-two, one-two-three clapalong at the end.

While the group didn’t take the songs as far into jazz territory as they can, they never stayed in one place for long, even as a tune would go on for ten or twelve minutes. Sala beckoned for “all the single ladies” to come down front and sing coros with him; a little later, they launched into a long, undulating take of Que Palo that started out crepuscular and mysterious but by the end was a triumphant anthem with polyrhythms and vocals from everybody. Pantoja-Aleman opened a recent Martinez original, Dios Mio – an OMG-good moment – using a cheesy 80s salsa romantica DX7 synth patch, but by the middle of the song, the congas were thundering and he was back on the piano. As the set went on, the jams got longer, with more sparring between band members. They closed with a joyous singalong of the salsa standard Bacalao.

“I’ve never known them to play with a setlist,” one audience member in the know revealed: Martinez simply called out the tunes and the band knew them. Martinez’s next gig is tomorrow night , Feb 28 at  7 PM at Subrosa on Gansevoort St.; cover is a measly $7. Then they hit the road for a long international tour. 

And the next dance party at the Lincoln Center atrium space, on March 16 at 7:30 PM features the first-ever US performance by the master musicians of the Festival Gnaoua et des Musiques du Monde in Essaouira, Morocco with Maalem Hamid El Kasri, Maalem Abdeslam Alikkane and special guest Maalem Hassan Ben Jaafer, leader of wildly popular NYC ensemble Innov Gnawa.

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