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"People ask us what kind of music we play," Doc Severinsen said Friday, early in a benefit concert for the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music with El Ritmo de la Vida. "I have no idea."
Severinsen, violinist Pedro Cartas, guitarist Gil Gutierrez, bassist Gilberto Gonzalez and percussionist Miguel Favero are pretty hard to pin down. They play jazz of some mixed variety: a little Gipsy Kings, a little Django Reinhardt/Hot Club of France, a little neo-Flamenco, a little Latin fusion. The repertoire ranged from "Dark Eyes," the Russian folk tune (as you've never heard it before), to Reinhardt's "Minor Swing," to Chick Corea's "La Fiesta" to "Sweet Georgia Brown" (also as you've never heard it before).
The mix of musical personalities made for pleasing contrasts. You know Doc, all showy but also emotional, with a big vibrato and dreamy way of slurring notes. Cartas' suave, cool precision made a nice foil for Doc. Gutierrez, a tremendous guitarist, showed command of plectrum, classical finger style and Flamenco techniques, and the intensity of his tremolo and the speed of his scales were amazing.
Their arrangements often begin far afield, so the tune sort of sneaks up on you, which is fun. Severinsen opened "La Fiesta" with this crazy extended solo on snaking Middle Eastern scales rendered in a timbre that sounded exactly like a snake charmer's shawm.
Solos were abundant but only occasionally lengthy. The numbers were more like taut, organized compositions than like rambling collections of improvisations. Many of them called for zipping scale work for the pitched instruments in unison octaves by way of a final flurry, and it was cool to hear the bass moving with the ease and speed of the violin. Gonzalez is really good, as a melodic player and as a rhythm engine.
These highly virtuosic players are showmen. Doc, as always, had amusing stories to tell, but they also worked comedy into the music. Gutierrez played off Doc's habit of conducting by pretending to miss cues. Favero left his congas to drum on the guitar strings while Gutierrez ran through the chord changes with his left hand. At the end of a long guitar solo, Gutierrez just couldn't seem to find that right last note. Cartas extended his violin, Gutierrez reached out and plucked a string, and there was the note he'd been searching for. Ha! Good one!