Friday, July 08, 2005

A new God in my Pantheon: Orestes Vilató

And now for something completely diffrent...

I love live music. I love going to small clubs and seeing performers in intimate, small venues. I can't remember the last time I went to see an arena concert. About the biggest venue I've been to recently is The Filmore. So when I experience great music in a small venue, I'm in heaven.

Which brings us to a concert I caught last weekend at the Noe Valley Ministry featuring Cuarteto Dos Alas: John Santos, Elio Villafranca, Orestes Vilató, and John Benitez.

I heard about the concert while listening to my abosolute favorite radio show, Fire Music on KPOO, 89.5 FM, which airs on Fridays, 9:00-noon. All I heard was that some Afro Cuban quartet with John Santos and some NYC players was happening at Noe Valley Ministry. I've heard Santos a few times and loved his work. I've been meaning to catch a show at Noe Valley Ministry since, forever — since years ago when I saw a playbill for Bobby McFerrin (long before "Dont Worry, Be Happy") and did not act. So I got to work, googled the gig, and called Bernie — the one friend that can be relied on to get out of the house for a good concert — and by 8:00 that night we're settling in for the concert.

Turns out this was the quartet's first gig. They may have been playing together earlier in the week at Jazz Camp West, but never together as a quartet. It took them a few songs to turn the heat up. Maybe it was playing in a churh, on the altar, that kept the first few songs low-key, understated. Or maybe the music they play is usually played by a larger ensemble with horns, maybe a guitar. This group was heavy on the rhythm section. As my friend Bud said when I told him about the quartet, "the piano had to be good", since he naturally had to shoulder a lot of the melody. Elio Villafranca was better than good. He was huge, playing powerfully with an amazing range of styles. The bass player, John Benitez, was also an eye opener. He played off Villafranca's lines beautifully, and stepped out to take the lead on many songs.

Santos was very laid back. Maybe too laid back. I suspect he was waiting for everyone to jell together before stepping to the front. OK, but the first few numbers stalled at times as they all waited for each other to take the lead. Santos eventally cut loose with some excellent solos and even better rhythm support -- but it was not his best concert.

The real revelation was Orestes Vilató on timbales. WOW! Where have I been that I haven't heard him before? I've learned that he came up in the New York Afro Cuban, Salsa scene and moved to SF and played with Carlos Santana. He's played with just about everyone. He has played with John Santos in recent years. This night he was the first player besides Villafranca to go off. He's been around. He can hear when there's a void to fill. And man, can he fill it. He just kept getting better and better. As the group found its groove in the second set, he really came to the front. The second set featured a lot of traditional Afro Cuban pieces that I imagine he's been playing since he was a kid — and that spans a long, long time. The whole ensemble shined on those numbers, but Vilató was in another plane of being. I know he was good, but when Benitez came accross stage to hug him after a particularly incindiary solo, I knew it wasn't just me. This guy is a maestro extrordinaire.

I will definitely have to catch him again...

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