Chicago Afro-Latin Jazz Ensemble (CALJE) CSPS Hall, Cedar Rapids, IA

CEDAR RAPIDS (Saturday, March 22, 2014)

Writing a review about a jazz ensemble, especially for a website that is predominately about non-jazz music groups, can be problematic. The average rock/pop/folk/country listener may not be familiar enough with jazz to really tell the difference between a good ensemble and a bad one. That’s not necessarily any fault on the listeners’ part: there are a lot of bad jazz ensembles out there that people think are good, simply because they are producing music that is so outside the box they are used to hearing that they decide it must be good. Or, people are so inexperienced with jazz they simply don’t have the knowledge to tell good from bad.

In addition, the average person who isn’t already a fan of jazz tends to have a short attention span when it comes to jazz in general. This too is understandable: most people listen to songs that run about 3 to 5 minutes, and if there is a solo in the song, it usually runs only the length of a verse or chorus: 30 seconds, tops. Popular music forms, even “alternative” are meant to fall within certain expectations of complexity, style, song length, etc. Jazz tends to be “cerebral”,  with a lot of the same sort of concentration and expectation on musicianship one finds in classical music.

Along comes the Chicago Afro-Latin Jazz Ensemble to CSPS Hall. The band, often called “CALJE”, can range in size from 2 to 20 people, depending on the gig. They’re a “traditional jazz” group, in that they perform primarily Afro-Cuban style songs, mixed in with a variety of Afro and Latin influences. They stay within the “formula” of those styles, which is something any jazz fan can appreciate.

The “problem” I speak of is that it’s hard to break down CALJE’s performance on Saturday, March 22 in the same way I would a concert by a folk singer or pop band. Critiquing a jazz ensemble is very much about not only how well the musicians play, but how well they present the style of music they are playing. Keeping in mind that a typical song CALJE played lasted between 8 to 10 minutes, often with 3 extended solos in each song, I’ve got to talk more about their musicianship than I would about the overall impact of the show as I would with a non-jazz act.

The quintet that played Saturday night definitely brought their A game. The group consisted of Victor Garcia on Trumpet and Flugelhorn, Rocky Yera on tenor sax, Xaiver Breaker on drums, Joshua Ramos on bass and Steve Million on piano. Their ensemble playing was tight and seamless, and Xaiver, Joshua and Steve played off each other masterfully. It’s the mark of a good rhythm section that each member can do his own thing, but in a way that compliments what the others are doing rather than detracts from the overall sound of the band.

Front man Victor Garcia gave a lot of time to each member of the band for solos. This was refreshing to see, because I’ve been to jazz concerts where the leader wants to hog the spotlight, giving only occasional extended time to other members of the band on which he depends. Victor gave each player plenty of time to solo, usually with two or three solos in any song. If the Xaiver or Joshua didn’t solo on one song, they did on the next.

Their level of musicianship is excellent, world class without a doubt, but that also brings up the one, personal downside if felt about their performance. As I mentioned, jazz tends to be “cerebral”, not just for the listeners but for the performers as well. I know: I’ve been a jazz musician and played in groups ranging from quartets to big bands. As a player, you tend to focus on getting into the zone of playing the very best you can technically. It can take a lot of concentration to do this while making sure your improvisations don’t all sound the same You also have to concentrate a lot on what the other band members are doing to keep things tight and cohesive.

What happens is that, sometimes, there is so much “head” being put into the music that there isn’t always enough “heart” for my taste. On a couple of the more upbeat songs CALJE performed, I found myself wishing they would cut loose a bit, let some raw, let’s have fun kicking ass emotion show through. I will say that doing such a thing is risky playing the style of traditional jazz that CALJE plays. Things can fall apart quickly if a member goes over the top and looses focus, destroying the tight cohesion that marks a jazz ensemble of the caliber of CALJE. While I was personally disappointed that the guys didn’t push a couple of songs as close to the edge as I would have liked, that’s not to say they performed badly. I know others would disagree with my disappointment, stating that they maintained the sort of control over what they were playing that marks the best traditional jazz.

This one small, personal criticism aside, I had a great time Saturday night. It has been a while since I’ve heard a traditional jazz ensemble live, and I found myself scat singing under my breath along with their songs. I left the concert hoping that one day I can see their full ensemble live. Keeping such a tight groove with a group that size can be difficult, but I have no doubt the members of CALJE can pull it off.

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