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Contemporary Latin Jazz


DC Music Web
by Grant Moser

Do you know the feeling when you are so excited about something you can't wait to share it with someone, anyone? When you can't help smiling and feeling like weights are being lifted off of you? When I walked out of Latin Jazz Alley on Columbia Rd. in Adams Morgan late Friday night, that is how I felt.

I had just seen Ritmo Junction perform, a Latin jazz band. I don't know if perform is the right word. Perhaps inspire, move, invigorate would be a better choice. The sound and life they created in that small environment was unbelievable. Their talent is obvious, the solid jazz musicians they are shining through. With the band sitting at the front of the long narrow bar, the music came barreling down at the audience, wrapping around and sweeping you up and entrancing all.

The base of their music is a Latin beat, which carries emphasis on different beats than traditional jazz. Improvising over that were so many incorporated styles, sometimes you didn't know which way was up. I heard New York club jazz, birdland, bossa nova, Spyro Gyra, rhythm and blues, even Santana. But unlike basic jazz, the Latin beat under it provided a solid foundation that never went away, that was always pulsing through the song.

The style they most frequently use is Cuban, a music that relies on the bass guitar to provide the stability, the groove everyone in the band follows and comes back to. Cuban songs are based on layers upon layers of rhythm, each instrument contributing until you are faced with a lush, full landscape that is so beautiful, so easy to get under your skin.

It's members include: Rob Teegarden (guitar), Stuart Ridgway (Piano, Keyboards), Chris Webster (drums), Frankie Addison (saxaphone), Steve Bloom (congas), Steve Sachse (bass). The venue was too small that night for their horn section, they had to do with only one guy on saxophone. Poor Frankie Addison didn't even have a microphone. He still was so good and so loud and so smooth.

Besides these basic instruments, which didn't sound very basic at all (I swear they were enchanted), during the songs the band members would pick up funky little instruments to add percussion and a little bit more sabor; cowbells, shakers, gourds, sticks. Audience participation was encouraged. Some of these oddities were passed around during the show, I even got to play the gourd (I think my future in Latin music is limited).

While we were there, a few musicians they knew jumped up with them and joined them in the music. Ritmo Junction was very receptive, enjoying the comadreship. Apparently due to certain basic rules in Latin music, if you know the guidelines you can jump in no problem with anyone playing it. The band told me it happens often while they play live.

And it is playing live where their true talents are released. Experimentation and improvisation are such an intregal part of their show. They don't try to suppress it at all. If one of the members begins going off and getting on something, the band lets him go, learning and enjoying and supporting him all at the same time.

That enjoyment carries across the most of all. When you are in the room with them and the passion they play with is there in front of you, you cannot help but be touched by the music. Sometimes just when you think that the sound cannot get any fuller, any richer, any more alive, they turn a switch and take off, trailing away into the sky. I found myself a few times holding my breath as the song grew and grew and kept approaching critical mass. My friend turned to me at one point and said, "It is like sunlight streaming in."

The core group began 6 years ago and has continued to add members as needs changed. They all studied music in college and decided on Latin music because of its accessibility to the listener. Inside the simple structure that hooks you there is a complexity that is challenging to the musician. And it is fun. Audiences love it. You can't help it.

During the first set the crowd was small, but after each song I was amazed at how loud the clapping was. The appreciation came from so deep inside, it felt primal. The windows were open behind them while they were playing, and the sound of their music out on the street pulled in more and more people as the night continued. How could they resist the party that was happening upstairs at Latin Jazz Alley?

When they began playing 6 years ago, there were 6 or 7 clubs they could perform at. Now there are none, except for Latin Jazz Alley. The scene in the city is changing, and the outlets for them are shrinking. So come catch them while you can. Begin a groundswell for this wonderful music. Come share in Ritmo Junction.