November 12, 2006. Closing Night of the 2006 San Francisco Jazz Festival at the Palace of Fine Arts Theater in San Francisco. It kinda started in your ribs — just a little tic from side to side that happened reflexively as the Machete Ensemble sent the first notes into the air. Pretty soon it moved into the tip of your shoulders — just a bit of a bounce. And that set your head nodding in time with the beat. Before long, you found yourself swinging and swaying in the Palace of Fine Arts Theater’s groovy reclining seats, which luckily left a lot of leg room in front, in case you wanted to … you know … get up and dance. Which most people did.
It seemed like everyone who was ever part of the San Francisco Latin jazz scene was on hand to bid adios to John Santos’ Machete Ensemble, which disbanded in a blowout concert on November 12 after twenty-one years of turning up the Afro-Latin heat in the Bay Area.
All night long, a parade of former Machete members as well as friends and family came up on the stage to jam with the core group of Macheteros — Orlando Torriente on vocals, John Calloway on flute, Ron Stallings and Melecio Magdaluyo on saxes and clarinet, Wayne Wallace on trombone, Murray Low on piano, David Belove on bass, Paul van Wageningen on drums and Orestes Vilató on just about everything else. And sitting in the middle of it all was the genial, chatty Santos himself, on the congas emblazoned with red, white and blue “Impeach Bush” stickers — as charming as ever, although, as he admitted, talking a little faster than usual so as to fit in all the fun in a brief amount of time.
Over the years, Machete has attracted some of the best talent from the Bay Area and beyond — Cachao, Chocolate, Changuito, Armando Peraza, as well as Omar Sosa, and Rebeca Mauleón. The group, which gives off vibes of sheer warmth and generosity onstage, has been a jumping off point in the careers of many young artists. So it was that the concert, which might have looked a bit of a mishmash, became a huge family reunion, with old and new band members slapping each other on the back and obviously having a grand time playing old favorites with each other again.
There was the charismatic María Márquez singing again with them in “Quando Yo Te Queria.” An arrangement of Juan Tizol’s “Caravan” by Wallace gave us a chance to appreciate Calloway’s virtuoso flute soloing, while Calloway’s own “Zaire” was an opportunity to bring on stage the fiery New York trumpet sound of Ray Vega. For “Lindo de las Razas” Santana’s searing trumpet player Bill Ortiz, as well as Mario Abruzzo, Ramon Estevez, Willie Ludwig and Anthony Blea on violin joined in the fray, filling the hall with a smoky Latin big band atmosphere.
To close out the first set, pianist Rebeca Mauleón, whose arrangements made up a core of the band’s rep along with those of Calloway, Wallace and Santos himself, sailed onto stage, much to the delight of the crowd. With Karl Perazzo, who now plays percussion for Santana, as well as Harold Muniz on congas, and Ortiz and Vega blasting away on trumpets, the music took on an immense looming physicality, like an oncoming freight train. You had two choices: take the leap and get on the train, or run like hell and get out of the way.
“Orlando Torriente… we need you up here for something…” Santos intoned before the second set began. Indeed. The whole train was picking up speed after intermission. At the front of the band, Lakiba Pittman’s sonorous vibrato cut to the quick in Santos’ West African-inspired “Going Home Tomorrow” from his “Brazos Abiertos” album. But it was the sublimely talented young Destani Wolf whose powerful, milk-and-honey voice raised hairs on the back of our necks in a self-assured diva turn with Vega in “Tu no sabes lo que se amor.”
If it was the closing hours of the Machete Ensemble, never fear, they seemed to say, there is still a whole new generation of musicians like Wolf and the energetic young conga player Javier Navarrete, who sat in on the congas several times through the night.
The music doesn’t stop, of course, as Santos made clear at the end when he plugged upcoming gigs, including an appearance at the 25th Annual Encuentro del Canto Popular at the Masonic, where he’ll appear with Vilató and Calloway as well as Saul Sierra and Marcos Diaz. But the little group that started as the Afro-Cuban Jazz ensemble and became one of the best known hothouses of original works of Latin jazz is no more.
Even as the concert came to a close and the band members marched off the stage New Orleans funeral band style, the crowd followed and hung out with them in the lobby exhorting them to keep on playing. If only.
The John Santos Quintet peforms at the Encuentro del Canto Popular Saturday, December 9, 2006. For tickets and information visit accionlatina.org.