Reviews

L. A. Jazz Scene

 

November 2004 / Issue No. 206

CD Review

 

The Banda Brothers

Acting Up!

WJ3 Records

 

By Cathy L. Jensen

 

      Meg Ryan’s memorable scene in When Harry Met Sally proved that some peak experiences can be faked. Latin Jazz is not one of them.

      The powerful twin roots of Afro-Latin and American jazz have again produced succulent fruit in this first release. After eight years, the Banda Brothers’ loyal, local following is feasting with them on just desserts.

      The disc leads off with collaboration between conguero Joey DeLeon and Francisco Torres. On “1070 Elder Ave., The Bronx” DeLeon shows Torres around his old neighborhood. Not the gentrified Bronx of the new Millennium, but all the frenetic sights, sounds, tastes and dynamic rhythms of a time teeming with the electricity of life so suited to this idiom. The prolific Torres penned four additional tunes, two acknowledging those who led the way: “Talk like Eddie” (Harris) and “Ara Orun” for Mongo Santamaria, Julito Collazo, Ray Brown and Elvin Jones. Watch for this player/composer. When he takes the stage with saxophonist Javier Vergara, the mutual respect with which they listen to each other combusts with magic. They blow the brass off those horns.

      When a world class timbalero like Ramon Banda puts out a call for percussionists to jolt J.J. Johnson’s “Concepts in Blue” into a high-voltage Latin Jazz interpretation, musicians like bongocero Jose Papo Rodriguez and Alfred Ortiz on guiro and maracas answer the call. Only those with monster chops need apply. The .sextet nails Nat Adderley’s “Fun” like a runaway freight train before shifting gears into Vergara’s “Contemplation.” This is the kind of ballad that brings a hush over a crowded jazz club, so that the patrons can really listen to the music. The composer reins in his tenor sax and seems to celebrate a sensuous saunter as a subtle art form.

      Chris Barron’s piano solos eloquently speak for themselves. What he does the rest of the time is more enigmatic, like air, unseen yet vital. The horns ride the thermals of his keyboards, while the percussion rumbles into the resultant void. His two originals, the hard bop “Smart Boy” and the Brazilian bossa-styled “I Don’t Mind” showcase the dynamic diversity of his talent.

      The brothers Banda, Tony on bass, Ramon on drums, are like a pair of crash cymbals in search of a lightning strike. With decades of dues paid, they attract hard-working talent. After their thunder roars, there are flashes of electricity and the audience can hear the future of these time honored traditions, feeding off one another, juicy and pulsing with life.

     Forget what she’s having. Make mine Acting Up!

L. A. Jazz Scene

 

November 2004 / Issue No. 206

Performance Review

 

By Glenn A. Mitchell

 

 

The Banda Brothers Sextet at Steamers

          

 

   The Banda Bros., regulars at Steamers for the last ten years, played to a full house on October 12.  This, in itself, is unusual for a Tuesday evening, but this band was worth it!  The sextet was made up of Tony Banda, bass; Ramon Banda, drums; Javier Vergara, tenor sax; Francisco Torres, trombone; Chris Barron, piano; and Victor Baez, congas. 

 

   Opening with John Coltrane’s “Some Other Blues,” the combo mixed straight-ahead jazz with Latin counter rhythms.  Vergara, playing a brand new Yamaha Custom tenor saxophone, delivered an exciting, smooth solo for this piece.  Segments of the tune were in 4/4 time, and then moved into a dynamic mambo feel.  Torres’s solo explored harmonics “outside” the changes.  Both Tony and Ramon soloed several chorus each in this tune. 

 

   “Talk Like Eddie,” a composition by trombonist Torres, allowed room for stunning improvisations by the tune’s writer and tenor man Vergara.  In keeping with the Banda Bros. penchant for using tunes composed by sextet personnel, Chris Barron’s “Smart Boy” followed with the opening solo played by the pianist himself. 

 

   “Miss B’s Ritual” began with an intro by Baez.  Torres’s hard-driving solo playing contrasted various rhythmic patterns.  This display was followed by the Banda Bros. gangbusters duet on shekeres, large gourds loosely covered with beads.  The audience’s interactive participation was encouraged to the delight of everyone.  Thunderous applause followed! 

 

   Vergara’s “Contemplation” opened with his visceral solo.  This Latin bolero included Barron’s deft piano work.  The composition doubled in time to bossa nova during additional choruses. The number ended with a beautiful cadenza by Vergara.  “Dime Caridad,” another of Torres’s compositions, was played in a rumba-based dance pattern.  Barron included some superior harmonic treatment in his comping leading to riffs for Ramon’s drum and timbale soloing. 

 

   “Why Wait,” a tune by bassist Stanley Clarke, was a blues march performed by the band.  Pianist, Duke Jordan’s “Flight to Jordan” received a typical Banda Bros. approach—a combination of be-bop and Latin jazz.  In the Acting Up! liner notes, Danilo Lozano states, “The challenge for Latin Jazz musicians is to interpret music that bears Afro-Latin and American Jazz musical traditions.”  A fast mambo, “Flight to Jordan” featured Vergara and Torres trading 8-bar breaks.  Tony and Ramon repeated this same exchange.  The band’s striking finale had the audience cheering. 

 

   Acting Up! is the Banda Bros. recent CD release on the WJ3 Label.  In addition, the pair owns a spectacular website: www.bandabros.com .

L.A. JAZZ SCENE

WINTER 2001/2002

COVER STORY

The Banda Brothers: Blood and Music Ties

by Patricia Albela

      Whoever saw the West Coast’s most popular Latin jazz ensemble surely saw them perform. Bear-like and bearded, they stood behind Poncho Sanchez, keeping the rhythm solid, making the bass and drums groove along with his congas.

      Their last name is Banda, Spanish for band. They come from a family of musicians, and got their first gig in the family band.

      Six-year-old Tony used to hold the electric bass as an upright, because of his short height. Ramon, who started as a guitarist, switched to drums to fill the void left by a cousin who was drafted to Vietnam. With mom on piano, and under the direction of their uncle, saxophonist Mike Chavarria, they spent their early years playing weddings, fiestas and neighborhood parties in Norwalk, CA. They played Tex-Mex, oldies-but-goodies, James Brown, cha cha’s and standards.

      They also listened to a lot of jazz.    “When we would wash the car, my uncle would always have the jazz station on, blasting at full volume,” Tony says.      But they only began playing jazz seriously, when they both joined their high school jazz band.     “In those days, being in the school’s jazz band wasn’t the cool thing to do,” Ramon says.  “But we did it anyway”      “I didn’t know what I was getting into,” Tony says. “We had rehearsals every morning before school, and I had to carry my bass at 7:00 in the morning after playing a club the night before, it was tough.”

      While still in Jr. high School, they met Poncho Sanchez, who turned them on to Cal Tjader, Tito Puente, John Coltrane and Mongo Santamaria. Sanchez and the Banda's had been performing together for several years before the early eighties, when the brothers helped Sanchez form his own band.

      The brothers got most of their training through listening and playing. “Listening to the greats and then trying to do what they did,” Ramón says. Among many others, he listened to Tito Puente, Mongo Santamaria, Vince Lateano, Manny Oquendo, Elvin Jones, Billy Higgins and Willie Bobo, and Tony, to John Heard, Ray Brown, Paul Chambers, Cachao, Al McKibbon, Andy González, and Bobby Rodriguez.

      “Our parents were always very supportive of us doing the music thing,” Ramón says. “My father just said, ‘Hey, if you’re going to go in there, do it right. But get a trade because eventually you’re going to be supporting a family, and you can’t do that with music.” So when he left high school, Ramón worked at a print shop. Tony became a machinist. Only sixteen years later, and after having recorded ten CD's with Sánchez, time to quit the day jobs arrived. Tony made the decision when he injured the same finger twice at work. By then, they were touring and performing enough to make ends meet. Music was beginning to go well and their father lived to see it.

      “I once wrote him a postcard from Japan,” Ramón says. “My dad had been there during the war. He got to see all those places but in a terrible way, and he used to tell us how the people there struggled. I said to him, ‘Now we’re over here, dad, playing for these people, making music, and being treated great.’ He was really proud.” *  *  *

      After a lifetime of playing together, the brothers have developed a strong synergism. “They’re the power part of the band,” says bassist Andy González, who co-leads the Fort Apache band with his brother, trumpeter/percussionist Jerry González. “They are great teammates and they really hold things together.”

      “Playing with Tony is like being at home sitting in your chair,” Ramón says. “It’s comfortable.” “Same here,” Tony says. They complete each other’s musical ideas without looking at each other, and they always know what the other is trying to accomplish when he takes a risk. The brothers count bassist González as one of their mentors. They first met him in the early eighties, when he came to Los Angeles touring with Manny Oquendo’s Conjunto Libre. González led Ramón into a crucial musical epiphany. “I once asked him about Manny's playing,” Ramón says Oquendo, leader of the Afro-Caribbean ensemble Conjunto Libre, is considered a master timbalero. “Andy said to me that if the montuno that the pianist is playing, is not happening, Manny would not take a solo,” Ramón says. “At first I thought, ‘That’s kind of weird,’” Ramón says. “But then I thought, ‘well maybe when I’m taking a solo, I’m not listening to what the piano player is doing.’ “Then I started listening to Manny’s solos and listening to the piano player, and I realized that what Manny plays is way inside the music. It’s not something he does alone. It’s something he does within the music, with the other musicians. It’s the whole thing that makes it happen. “So with that in mind, I went back and listened to my CD’s again. I listened to all the players, what they were playing, and why they were playing it. I went back to jazz and listened to Art Blakey, Philly Joe Jones, Max Roach, and I understood why they were playing that way. It was as if I had a whole new record collection. “So that made me really start listening to what I doing within the band even more,” Ramón says. *  *  *

      In 1996, the Banda Brothers decided to form their own band. Tony says “This is something different we put together to express ourselves in a more open musical setting.” “Something where, even if we have an arrangement, we don’t have to play it that way if we don’t want to,” Ramón says. With the Sextet, Tony trades his electric upright for an acoustic one and Ramón his timbales for a drum set, and the Banda Brothers can be found grooving and steaming at clubs in and around the Los Angeles area. The menu? Jazz, straight-ahead or simmered in sizzling Afro-Caribbean rhythms. “We’ve got lots of material that can be played in different styles,” Ramón says. “At the last minute we can say, ‘OK guys, instead of playing this like that, we’re going play it like this. Sometimes they go, ‘What?’ I say, ‘Let’s just do it, what the hell.’”

      Lately their audience has been asking them for CD’s, they haven’t recorded yet. “Even though we had some offers to record early on, I didn’t want to put that kind of pressure on the music, because the whole thing was for fun, you know what I’m saying? For the music, but now that I’m no longer a member of Poncho’s group our focus has changed.” Ramón says. “We’re now in the process of finding the right label and gathering new material from the members of the sextet.” The brothers seem to have found a group of young and talented musicians who share their musical approach. “There have been nights were we’re having such a good time playing with these guys, before we know it, the first set will last almost two hours,” Ramón says. “We are very thankful these musicians are committed to the band. They could be doing a lot of other things, but I think they like what’s happening musically,” Ramón says. “We all come from jazz,” pianist/composer Chris Barron says. “When Chris came in and played, Tony and I looked at each other and said, ‘Man! This is the guy,’” Ramón says. “He’s really creative and easy to play with,” Tony says. Barron’s jazzy take, cool and sophisticated, yet simple and highly swinging, stands out immediately. Saxophonist/flutist Javier Vergara is mainly a straight-ahead, progressive jazz musician who, Ramón says, “doesn’t play like anybody I know his age, beautiful tone and a creative spirit.” Trombonist Francisco Torres is a vigorous addition and an inventive composer/ arranger. “We’d been looking for someone like Francisco for a long time.” Ramón says. Torres and Barron are responsible for the band’s charts and originals. *  *  *

      Since the beginning, the Banda's decided they would use different percussionists. “We didn’t want this thing to get too comfortable,” Ramón says. Outstanding percussionists Papo Rodriguez, Joey De León, Fausto Cuevas, Victor Pantoja, Taumbu, Alfred Ortiz, and Francisco Aguabella take turns to fill in the conguero’s seat. “Each player brings a different flavor and concept which takes the music to a different place,” Ramón says. “Papo Rodriguez is one of my favorites,” Tony says. “Playing with him is like playing with a brother.” “Francisco Aguabella is a master conguero, a master musician,” Ramón says. “The minute he steps on the bandstand, man, you better be ready. What he brings to the music is unreal. You have to be on your toes every second.” “When I play with the Banda Brothers I feel free,” Aguabella says. “I play way out there, but I don’t have to worry about doing any downbeats or breaks with the congas. I know they are supporting me.” *  *  *

      In Ramón’s living room, the Afro-Cuban sounds of Milton Cardona singing with a rumba ensemble alternate with Stanley Turrentine’s jazz tenor. Against the walls, there are congas and batá drums of various sizes. On a table lies a copy of pianist Kenny Werner’s book “Effortless Mastery.” On the floor, there are dozens of shékeres, beaded gourds of African origin with which they create rhythmic trances when they perform arrangements in 6/8. Since 1992, the Banda brothers have been handcrafting shékeres. “When we started making them, we didn’t intend to make it a business, but it’s turning into one,” Ramón says. Shékeres had always intrigued Ramón and once he mentioned it to his friend percussionist Tambú, who used to make them. He then taught Ramón the basics. “It was like a gift he gave me,” Ramón says, “and I’ve tried to pass it on to my brother.” So every March and April they rent a U-Haul, drive to gourd farms in Arizona or Nevada, and spend hours handpicking potential shékeres. “You don’t know what they’re going to sound like until you clean them, cut them, and bead them” Ramón says. The brothers pick the dry gourds by their shapes and sizes. At home, they clean, scrape, and hollow them. They varnish them. Then, they string and bead them. “Beading shékeres puts you in a state,” Ramón says. “It’s like an artist painting,” Tony says. “When you’re stressed out, making a shékere gives you peace of mind,” Ramón says. Two weeks ago, the Banda's got a phone call from the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC. “They’re putting together a big exhibit on Latin jazz, and they’ve commissioned us to make them a shékere,” Ramón says. The exhibit “Latin Jazz: La Combinación Perfecta,” which will explore the history, cultural context, musicians, instruments, and dance related to the genre, will open October 2002. Each brother picks up a shékere and begins playing. They are fascinating instruments, these large shakers, which when hit on the bottom sound like organic bass drums. There is magic in their sound. Maybe it’s the way the brothers play them. “Playing them together is like a conversation,” Ramón says. It’s striking how musical the brothers are. But Tony’s musicality has gotten in his way of overcoming one of his biggest frustrations: he doesn't sight read. “Every time I try to read, I do it a couple of times, my ear takes over and I’m not reading the chart anymore,” Tony says. “People say, ‘Oh, you’re doing great,’ I am now focusing on that part of my playing with the help of fellow bassist's.”

      Ramón also has the commitment to grow and learn. Recently, he has taken some lessons from jazz drumming great Jeff Hamilton. “I’m trying to get my drum set playing together so that it feels as comfortable to me as the timbales, and Jeff has helped me a great deal towards getting that together” Ramón says. He must be doing something right. “Ramón is an extension of rhythm, and one of the greatest interpreters of that rhythm on timbales,” says bassist Al McKibbon. “Not only that, he’s proficient in jazz drums.” Ramón played on Al McKibbon’s CD Tumbao Para Los Congueros De Mi Vida, which received a Grammy nomination in 1999, the same year The Poncho Sánchez’ Group won the Grammy for Latin Soul.

      Look for new and exciting things coming soon from the Banda Brothers.

L.A. Jazz Scene

September 1, 2000

BLAZING BLUENOTE:

The Banda Brothers Sextet

Jazz Review by Cathy L. Jenson

I have an admittedly low boredom tolerance, so I appreciate wide repertoires that vary with each performance. I’m never quite sure if the iridescent blue green glint that comes from these musicians is filtered through the wing of a dragonfly or flashing off the gun metal black of a runaway locomotive. From an imaginative, energetic version of "In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning" to the adrenaline blast of a near train wreck on "The Kicker", these players remain on track. Light bends and shifts with the sound of brass ensemble playing by Javier Vergara on tenor sax and Francisco Torres on trombone, that overshadows their own impressive individual efforts. Joined by guests Bryan Lips (trumpet) and Danny Balancio (trombone), they proved that the interplay of four out-shines the individuality of one. Just back from the Thelonius Monk Institute in Aspen, Angelino Bryan Lips tattooed John Coltrane’s "Some Other Blues" into the Orange County consciousness. Vergara shared solos with pianist Chris Barron on "Soul Eyes", providing a diaphanous interlude with only the Banda brothers, Ramon on drums and Tony on bass, before the real fun began.

Whether you like your fun "Funquiado" by Clare Fischer or straight up a la Cannonball Adderley, the Bandas had you covered. The later, was dedicated to their teacher Francisco Aguabella. Congueros Alfred Ortiz or Papo Rodriguez are regulars, but Warren "Nacho" Ontiveros willingly moved over to make room on stage for Aguabella. Watching them share a set of congas later in the evening made me wonder how anything so apparently visually unrelated could have such an exciting auditory payoff. I remembered, on another occasion, over-hearing Ramon Banda tell guest pianist Mark Massey, "Don’t think, just grab hold and hang on." True to that image, their freight train roared into the night, fueled by the added volubility of new talent and seasoned artistry, to unbridled loco-motion.

Pianist/composer Chris Barron’s "Smart Boy" was guaranteed to have a story behind it. My guess was a reference to formal music education, because both Bandas are self-taught. The truth is that Barron wrote this for a gig several years ago, complete with charts, and even recorded the performance. When it came time to dust off and add it to the group’s current play list, both charts and the recording had mysteriously gone missing. A "Smart Boy" then, is one who can reconstruct his tune by remembering the chord changes that initially intrigued him enough to write the original.

You’d have to be sealed off from your soul to be unmoved by the visceral percussion and "real deal" quality of Francisco Torres’ untitled mezcla of Afro-Cuban yambu and quinto. With his aggressive take no prisoners, style of attack. I’ve only once sat where I was looking up his trombone slide as he played. I wanted to give him the runaway strap from an old pair of skis to protect listeners in the immediate vicinity.

" Dragonfly" is an apt metaphor for their journey between the realms of Latin and straight ahead. Their shell structure scatters and refracts life on both sides of an imaginary line. With two pairs of wings, the Banda Brothers sextet flies both north and south of an illusionary border, inviting purists on both sides to broaden their musical horizons.

Los Angeles Times

Calendar

Jazz Review July 24, 1999

By Don Heckman

It may not be getting as much attention as Ricky Martin’s latest swivel of the hips, but there is a growing cornucopia of Latin Jazz around the southland. This week, Rocco Ristorante in Bel-Air, a favorite destination for fans of young jazz talent, is beginning a program of regular Latin Jazz on Friday nights.

The program actually kicked off Thursday, with a galvanized performance by the Banda Brothers Sextet. Longtime staples of the Latin Jazz scene, the bearded Bandas- Tony on bass and Ramon on drums- are frequently heard with the Poncho Sanchez band. But their own ensemble has a distinctly individual identity, best typified by its capacity to move freely across a continuum of styles that ranges from straight-ahead jazz through a colorful variety of surging Latin rhythms.

The core of the Banda’s performance Thursday, in fact, centered around the strikingly intuitive rhythmic interaction between the two brothers, augmented by the conga playing of Jose "Papo" Rodriguez. Sometimes rushing forward with an Art Blakey-styled jazz momentum, they shifted easily into complex Afro-Cuban accents, climaxing with a collective trio of interactive, energetic beaded gourd playing in an expanded, 6/8 romp through the Bronislau Kaper film standard, "Invitation."

Tenor saxophonist Javier Vergara and trombonist Francisco Torres served as an effective front-line horn duo. And Torres, in particular, was an articulate, imaginative soloist, especially during a rendering of "In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning" that managed to capture the character of the song’s late-night ennui while simultaneously exploring its harmonic potential for improvisation.

Chris Barron, on piano, sounded a bit subdued at times, but rallied toward the middle of the set to contribute an original piece of his own as well as an occasional passage of stirring tumbao rhythms.

Don’t expect to see the Banda Brothers trying out any Ricky Martin Dance moves anytime soon. But there’s no denying the power of their personal blend of Latin Jazz to make the feet tap and the heart sing.

LOS ANGELES TIMES

CALENDAR April 7, 1997

Banda Brothers Go Their Own Way

Jazz Review

By Bill Kohlhaase

Fullerton- If things looked and sounded familiar when the Banda Brothers played Steamers Cafe last Tuesday night, there was good reason. As long time members of the Poncho Sanchez Latin Jazz Band, bassist Tony Banda and his percussionist brother Ramon anchor one of the most visible ensembles in Southern California.

Raised in the same Norwalk neighborhood as Sanchez, Tony and Ramon have been playing music with him for 32 years, starting with backyard jam sessions and wedding bands before they were teens. The brothers have been in the Latin Jazz Band for all of it’s 18 years.

While their association with the conguero continues, they recently have been performing under their own name. And while the heartbeat pulse of their bass and percussion would have sounded decidedly familiar at Steamers to anyone who follows the Sanchez band, there were differences.

For one thing, the Banda Brothers Sextet features different material than Sanchez’s eight- piece group plays. At Steamers such obscure, hard-bop numbers as Wayne Shorter’s "Tom Thumb" shared time with Bronislau Kaper’s "Invitation" and Mal Waldron’s "Soul Eyes."

Also, Ramon, who plays timbales for Sanchez, has moved to drum kit with the sextet, giving it a harder, more swing-oriented feel. Congas were played Tuesday by Jose "Papo" Rodriguez, he and Ramon evoked memories of percussionist Big Black and drummer Pete LaRocca collaborating in the mid-60’s with Freddie Hubbard.

Anchored by Tony’s upright bass, the group developed a sound that often teamed Latin rhythms with straight-out swing. Indeed, during Elvin Jones’ "Three Card Molly," Rodriguez sat out, and the group dispensed with the Latin feel all together. The brothers’ frontline- saxophonist Javier Vergara and trombonist Francisco Torres- created aggressive, Jazz Messengers-styled theme- and-solo statements to compliment the straight-ahead emphasis. Vergara showed the dual influences of Shorter and John Coltrane as he soloed, sliding easily into sustained tones and breaking out briefly with high-register cries before turning to more detailed mid-range statements.

Torres’ non-blustery approach to the trombone was evident during smooth, warm phrases of "Speak Low" and more aggressively during "Bernie’s Tune."

Pianist Chris Barron, playing his first gig in public with the Banda's showed a spare sense of accompaniment that allowed the percussionists plenty of room for rippling accents and finely cut fills. When soloing, Barron matched them with equally considered musings, leaving lots of space between phrases as his ideas developed into larger statements.

There were moments when one could swear that one was listening to the Sanchez band, especially when the brothers took to large, bead-covered gourds called Shekeres for a extended solo. But the Banda's definitely have their own thing going, with a stronger emphasis on Jazz tunes. As Tuesday’s performance demonstrated, their band promises to make a unique contribution to the area’s Latin Jazz scene.

 
Revised: Friday, July 29, 2011

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