Orestes Vilato, born and raised in Cuba and one of the giants of Latin percussion, called me a year ago with the idea of putting a group together. I jumped at the chance. I had not played with Orestes for over ten years after having held down the piano chair in a second incarnation of Los Kimbos, Orestes’ seminal NY salsa group. We thought about it and decided that that it should be a small group. No big salsa horn sections. A real conjunto which would combine originals and gems of the Latin American songbook. Orestes wanted the material to be accessible, intimate and groovy, with flavors from all over Latin America. Who to call?
Maria Marquez and David Pinto were our first and obvious choices. Maria has an utterly distinctive voice — dark and rich, with overtones of flamenco cante jondo, Brazil and Mercedes Sosa, as well as a deep grounding in the music of her native Venezuela. Maria brings the soul of a true artist to every song. No word is sung without being felt. And as a talented songwriter and musician, she understands how to shape a phrase and color a melody.
Through his work as band leader for Susana Baca, David Pinto brings the rich tradition of Afro-Peruvian music to the project. David is as comfortable with jazz as he is with salsa and is a gifted arranger and composer. Witness his arrangement of “Toro Mata,” which incorporates the Afro-Peruvian rhythms of lando festejo, and a flamenco tanguillo before finally settling into a tight salsa groove. Or “Odiame,” which starts as a jazzy Peruvian waltz and then segues briefly into a flamenco buleria before a straight up mambo breakdown.
Omar Ledezma, another Venezuelan, was the next call. Omar, a wonderful percussionist, also has a voice which has been compared to the young Ruben Blades. Omar wrote the lyrics for three of the original tunes as well as many of the coros, and was a huge help in shaping the tunes and teaching the neophytes how to play the challenging Venezuelan merengue.
Sheldon Brown, with whom Orestes had recorded with on another project, was the perfect choice for reeds. A virtuoso jazz player and composer, Sheldon is equally adept at clarinet, flute and sax, and learned his Latin chops playing in Omar Sosa’s band for 5 years.
Some people might listen to Azesu and think, What is it? A salsa group? Not really. A world music group? No. A jazz group? The truth is, it is all and none of them. The flavors are all mixed in a way which is subtle and hard to put your finger on but makes for a new sound. And Orestes is the glue that holds it all together. Everyone was excited and eager to work with him. In fact, it would have been impossible to get this talented and busy group of musicians together for this project without him.
At our very first rehearsal we were all happy to find that we shared a common musical sensibility: a love for songs and melodies and grooves, presented simply and from the heart. David said that Azesu is a meeting of tribes. The tribes of the Americas…. Venezuela, Peru, Cuba and the U.S. We hope you enjoy this meeting and mixing of our musical influences.
Bay Area native Jonathan Alford’s latin chops were honed by 12 long years playing piano in the salsa trenches – though he fondly recollects his days changing, Superman-like, from his postal worker’s uniform into his gig duds. His reputation for honest, melodic and harmonically modern compositions and accompaniment has drawn a vast array of singers to him. “Most piano players like soloing. I like songs,” he says. He combines a typical Bay Area smorgasbord of influences from classical to blues in his writing and arranging for this project while adding a distinctive and lyrical piano voice.