911 Mambo Orchestra heats up and carries
Published January 29,
Ten years ago, a somewhat rough but ebullient
big band roared onto the stage of a North Side club and startled audiences with
its energy and fire.
After a performance that incendiary, one hardly could imagine where Chicago bandleader Angel
Melendez might take his 911 Mambo Orchestra.
The answer emerged on Thursday night at the VooDoo
Nightclub in Schaumburg, where Melendez's
organization not only sounded more sumptuous than ever but also basked in the
glow of a Grammy nomination for its self-titled debut recording.
Marie Perez and bandleader-trombonist Angel
Melendez of the 911 Mambo Orchestra.
(Photo for the Tribune by
"It's our first CD -- and we hit a home run,"
Melendez shouted to the overflow crowd, which returned
his enthusiasm, and then some.
Whether or not the 911 Mambo Orchestra takes the prize for best traditional
tropical Latin album at the Grammys on Feb. 13, the
ensemble clearly ranks among the country's most persuasive performers of
bolero, rumba, merengue and other Afro-Caribbean
And though the band inarguably has polished the rough edges of the early days,
the rhythmic verve and expressive ferocity of old remain intact. Indeed,
judging by Thursday night's show, the 911 band has achieved an elusive balance
between a robust performance style and a high degree of ensemble precision.
Whenever a big band can produce great blasts of sound without sacrificing
technical detail, audiences are in for a thrilling ride, which is precisely
what unfolded late on Thursday night.
With nearly two-dozen musicians crowding the stage, the 911 Mambo Orchestra
unleashed more sound and fury than one set of ears possibly could absorb.
Screaming horns, rumbling reeds, soaring voices, pulsing rhythms -- the sheer
avalanche of pitch and rhythm must have rung out halfway across northwest
But there was much more than just volume at play here (though the sound
technicians might have done everyone a favor by cranking down the amplification
a bit). With trumpets riffing against trombones, saxophones answering vocalists
and layers of percussion telegraphing multiple meters, listeners heard Latin
jazz and Cuban song and Puerto Rican dance dispatched in nearly ideal form.
Here was a bandleader who respected tradition but didn't succumb to it,
applying contemporary high spirits to age-old musical genres.
Consider the outrageously fast tempo and the profusion of rhythmic ideas that
Melendez's band offered in "El Cumbanchero,"
a rumba that evoked the spontaneous improvisations that often erupt on the
streets of Havana.
With congas, bongos, maracas, timbales and what-not offering varying
interpretations of the beat, listeners heard a music that pressed inexorably
forward from one syncopation to the next. All the
while, the trumpets offered brilliant "wha-wha"
riffs in sleek synchronicity, the trombones snarled piercing counterthemes, and the vocalists articulated lyrics more
quickly than one previously believed possible.
On a more muted note, Melendez and friends offered the classic "Besame Mucho," delivered this time in homage to the
composer Consuelo Velazquez, who died earlier this month at age 88.
Though every Latin band in the world plays this tune, the 911 ensemble
dispatched it at a gloriously slow tempo -- rendering it as the Mexican bolero
that Velazquez intended.
Beyond Dave Wolpe's luxuriant arrangement, the
primary joy here was in hearing the vocals of the great Mike Maldonado, who
brought a palpable sense of longing to its lyric phrases. Elsewhere in the evening,
Maldonado shared vocal duties with Linda Marie Perez and bandleader-trombonist
Melendez, their three-part harmony worth savoring.
And then there was the band's merengue version of
"Hava Nagila," a
Jewish folk song that does not typically appear on the same bill as "Besame Mucho." "Hava Nagila" never sounded so hip.