I write about theatre because I know theatre, intimately and over many years.
I’m writing about Jazz because I love Jazz, the way a man might love a goddess, fleetingly and in hot pursuit.
If you have never been to The Kennedy Center’s Jazz Club, tucked away in the Terrace Gallery, then you have missed one of the Center’s richest treasures.
Last night, Dizzy Gillespie™ Afro-Cuban Experience came to the Club and filled its small space with the sights and sounds and rhythms of a collective heartthrob.
Five Stars are simply not enough to classify the experience.
Led by bassist John Lee and featuring Machito Jr., the son of legendary Cuban vocalist Frank “Machito” Grillo on timbales, the seven-member ensemble performed a powerful combination of Gillespie compositions like “Manteca” (co-written by Dizzy Gillespie, Chano Pozo, and Gil Fuller), Brazilian songs like “Morning of the Carnival” (made famous in the film Black Orpheus) before ending the evening with Freddy Hubbert’s “Take It to the Ozone.”
What’s true of all the offerings can be summed up by Gillespie’s famous quote: “I don’t care much about music. What I like is sounds.”
And the virtuoso drumming of Tommy Campbell epitomized the joyous implications of that statement, as his solos fused trance-inducing rhythms with hysteria-producing noises. At one point he produced two pink pigs and percussed the poor creatures to a syncopation of squeals and thuds never once losing the thread of the song’s emotional journey.
Another musician to watch as much as hear was Abelita Mateus. Her frenetic fingers danced across the piano keys like a troupe of modern dancers, leaping and spinning through and across one another. Then, when she added her Portuguese vocals on a raucous ballad about a bar fight gone loco, you could almost feel the fists fly.
With Freddie Hendrix on trumpet and Sharel Cassity on alto sax and flute, their winds at times engrossed the audience with their dueling emotional riffs; at other times they squeezed us with the agony of a life lost.
Hendrix’s horn grabbed us at his first solo. His singular presence and definitive glare into the passion of the moment grounded Gillespie’s “Toccata” with his powerful notes. The rhythms and changing directions of the piece demonstrated not only the dexterity of his playing but of the entire ensemble, as piano, numerous percussion instruments, dueling horns, and bass each possessed its place within a soundscape of vital sensation.
Cassity, on the other hand, gave each piece a distinctly different vibe. Her soulful breaths filled our ears with a sense of longing, like when the wind rushes through a valley, that is until Hubbert’s “Ozone” came along. Then her rapid fire finger work on sax, and transcendent exuberance took us to a world beyond.
With Roger Squitero on percussions and Machito Jr. on the timbales, the sound of the evening was complete, a dizzying array of essentials, where each moment is a passionate plea for another, and another, and another.
The Dizzy Gillespie Afro-Cuban Experience clearly knows what it means to play together, and when you’re playing compositions like these unity and spontaneity are essential. For if you’ve ever watched a river plunge through a mountain gorge, the turbulence can be overwhelming if not synced.
And these seven musicians all occupied the same space at the same time: and that’s a feat many consider impossible.
Running Time: 65 minutes, with no intermission.
The Dizzy Gillespie Afro-Cuban Experience featuring Machito Jr. played January 23, 2015 at the Jazz Club, The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts Center – 2700 F Street, NW in Washington, DC. Check The Kennedy Center’s calendar of performances for future events.