A Lincoln Center Gala With a Lively Latin Beat

Jazz at Lincoln Center doesn’t have to present new programming at its gala fund-raisers; it could sail by on what’s now a decade-deep catalog of repertory and original work. But it chooses to, and the concerts themselves — swift, celebrity filled, ending early to leave time for the party afterward — can surprisingly be among the best of the season. ‘‘The Spirit of Tito Puente,’‘ Monday night’s show, put forward a subject that deserves elaboration beyond a gala, with its award-acceptance speeches and benign fripperies; it’s too tempting, musically exciting and culturally deep an idea to ignore.

The 1940’s was the time of the early Afro-Cuban jazz experiments by Dizzy Gillespie and Machito. Cross-cultural fusion came naturally to the composer-bandleaders of that era, including Puente, who died in 2000, and Chico O’Farrill, who died in June. As they bent toward jazz, so the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra is bending toward them. It has taken up an examination of Latin music quite seriously, starting with Cuban music, continuing with last season’s well-conceived tango-jazz concert and moving into Brazilian territory later this season.

Putting the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra side by side with the music of Puente is, as it happens, not very hard to do. In Monday’s program the fusion was achieved in several ways. In ‘‘Havana Blues’‘ (by O’Farrill, since he was receiving a posthumous award), the orchestra played the music with two Latin-fluent guests, the saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera and the pianist Arturo O’Farrill, Chico’s son.

In Puente’s ‘‘Picadillo,’‘ the orchestra (with Wynton Marsalis punching out a strong trumpet solo slung between jazz and Latin idioms) played alongside four members of the Puente orchestra and a guest pianist, Eddie Palmieri, who played furious flourishes. At the evening’s end, in Puente’s ‘‘3-D Mambo,’‘ the Lincoln Center and Puente orchestras alternated choruses, flicking between mambo and jazz swing, a neat conceptual trick. It’s not in the original recording of the song, but Puente accomplished it back in 1960, playing alongside a jazz orchestra on the album ‘‘Revolving Bandstand.’‘

Ed Bradley was the evening’s host. Awards, besides Chico O’Farrill’s, were given to Gordon J. Davis, the founding chairman of Jazz at Lincoln Center and the recently departed president of Lincoln Center, and to George Wein, the creator of the modern jazz festival.

Mr. Wein made an honest and optimistic speech about jazz being continually re-energized and changed by youth, and he asked the audience to try to accept what it might not understand as jazz. He’s a pianist as well, and after accepting his award he played an affecting version of ‘‘Pennies From Heaven,’‘ with Mr. Marsalis joining him on trumpet in the final chorus. Later, in another interlude, if one that didn’t quite fit the evening’s rubric, the Cape Verdean morna singer Cesaria Evora performed a song with her band.

The final sizzle was provided by the Eddie Torres Latin Dance Company, putting a little bit of the famous mambo-era palace, the Palladium — by way of Las Vegas — into the show, dancing mambo in front of the orchestra and switching to Lindy Hopping for the jazz portions of ‘‘3-D Mambo.’‘

Sequins and feathers and flesh-colored costumes are good gala stuff. But let’s hope for a meaty, regular-season program on Puente — or on the great period of 1950’s mambo — soon.

by Ben Ratliff
Source: New York Times

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