On face value, the idea of David Murray tackling the latin side of the Nat Cole songbook is like Gogol Bordello covering Hector Lavoe. But Murray and his ten-piece, all-star Cuban-American band springboarding off this less-than-likely repertoire at Lincoln Center Thursday night turned out to be lightning in a bottle – and that lightning escaped the bottle seconds after the show began. On one hand, it was typical Murray at the top of his explosive game. But what a ride – and with some unexpected flavors. Lincoln Center impresario Jordana Phokompe sat and listened with eyes closed, blissed out – she knew she’d scored a coup staging this, and the sold-out crowd agreed.
Barely a minute into Murray’s opening epic, Black Nat, he was already up to his usual tricks, veering in a split-second between expressive lyricism and wildfire hard bop, a characteristically jaw-dropping display of speed, power and valve-wrenching extended technique. Conducting from behind his tenor sax, he drove the band to a coda with an intricately polyrhythmic. bracingly chattering interweave of voices, a popular trope with his big band, akin to a less nebulous Art Ensemble of Chicago, The group – call them Murray’s Orquesta Pequeña Cubana, maybe? – rose to similarly uneasy, majestic heights several times throughout the evening.
The storefront soul of El Bodeguero began with a rat-a-tat conga solo from Yusnier Sanchez followed by trombonist Darius Jones’ jaunty, punchy feature. You wouldn’t ordinarily expect a trumpeter to take the song into twilit territory, but that’s exactly what Kali Rodriguez-Pena did before bringing the strut back
Quizas Quizas Quizas (it’s Spanglish – say it slowly and you’ll get it) slowly coalesced to a brightly blustery cha-cha, Murray working the dynamics back and forth, Pepe Rivero’s neoromantic piano glimmer underscoring bright trumpet, sax and trombone solos. The irrepressibly witty, Cuban-born, Spanish-based pianist was having a blast all night long, a nonstop festival of polyrhthms, playing against the beat for bar after bar until Jones looked at Murray, who just grinned back,: “That’s his steez!” This time around, left to his own devices, Rivero started out in 1880s Havana and took it all the way to Arverne Avenue in the Bronx a hundred years later.
A steady, bouncing solo from bassist Yunior Terry – who pushed the clave with his woody tone and sinewy purposeful melodicism – opened Cachito, which Murray approached as pretty staright-up salsa-jazz, spiced heavily with his own pyrotechnics and Rodriguez-Pena’s artfully spacious, yet most adrenalizing solo of the night. Then the group made a glittering, tropical river out of the allusively bolero-flavored Tres Palabras. The band – which also included the warmly soulful Roman Filieu on alto sax, Kazemde George on tenor and Keisel Jimenez on drums – closed with a lyrical take of the ballad Piel Canela.
The only thing missing was…well…Nat Cole. Tony Hewitt is a first class singer, and to his credit, without any prompting, copped to not having much command of Spanish, something he shares with Cole. But in a city with millions of native Spanish speakers and a similarly vast talent base, to not have someone up there who could really drive the lyrics home was a real head-scratcher. They couldn’t have put out a call to Austin to fly in Lincoln Center regular Pete Rodriguez – son of El Conde – for a cameo? Or imagine what Marianne Solivan – who really sparkles in front of a big band – could have done with this.
The next jazz show at the Lincoln Center atrium space is tomorrow, Dec 8 at 7:30 PM with Lakecia Benjamin, who’s earned a reputation as a formidable alto saxophonist but is also an impressively eclectic bandleader and composer who’s just as adept with oldschool JB’s style funk as she is at shapeshiftingly psychedelic 70s-style soul grooves. Early arrival is always a good idea here.