A lot of great live music happened this year but this gig was a favourite. It was danceable, visceral and the deeply rhythmic pulse found its way straight to your heart. As the band played the room radiated an infectious joy and the swaying of the audience amplified it. One by one the feet tapped and the hands moved until no one was left unaffected. Yes, this was music to wash away your cares but underneath that was something of real substance. Latin music that misses its groove is unsatisfying but when it’s done well like this was, it’s simply wonderful. No one in New Zealand could pull this off better than Jonathan Crayford and with co-leader Nathan Haines on board, it was locked down. The final ingredient to this potent tropical brew was master percussionist Miguel Fuentes.
This project has an impressive provenance as it is derived from the Bobby Vidal songbook, a selection arising out of his much-loved New York Latin/Bebop band. In the early nineties Crayford was living in New York and because he was intent on soaking up as many influences as possible he soon came across Bobby Vidal’s regular East Side, St Marks Bar gig. He loved the vibe and desperately wanted to become part of it and he started attending the gigs regularly. Through perseverance and after many knock-backs, he finally got an introduction to Vidal. Before long he was hired. After that, he spent three years with the band, describing the experience as ‘a pure joy’. The songbook was a heady fusion of Bebop and Afro-Cuban (or more accurately Afro-Rican as Vidal was from Puerto Rica). When Crayford initially agreed to take the Vidal gig he knew little about Latin music, but a quick phone call to his friend Barney McAll gave him valuable tips. Fast forward to 2018 and it is obvious to anyone who hears him that he absorbed the complexities and rhythms of the music beyond caveat. Although the rhythmic patterns are fixed, for the music to work well it needs something else – a controlled fluidity – the ability to react to the other musicians. Crayford once described it as being a weave which can be tightened and loosened at precise times – without the shape being lost. When you hear the clave patterns skilfully executed and interwoven, the experience is unforgettable.
Co-leader Haines ranks among our best known and most loved musicians. His experience and good taste are always on display and on this gig, he pulled out an extraordinary performance. After his recent surgery and health issues, it would have been excusable for him to hold something back, but Haines is averse to half measures. His primary instrument on this gig was flute (although he did play saxophone as well). Anyone who has followed his career will know that he was in New York around the same time Crayford was and he undoubtedly absorbed gigs similar to this. A subsequent move to London had him performing with a variety of Afro Caribbean musicians. His wonderfully peppery flute playing attests to these tropical influences. Many Jazz musicians avoided the flute, believing it to be expressionless, but when Haines blows, it has life, character, and edge. As a horn, it has pride of place in Latin ensembles and Latin lineups are diminished without it. Watching these two feed off each other’s lines or grooves is to attend a masterclass. Many years of collaboration has gifted them an acute situational awareness. An awareness that is now instinctual.
Then there is Miguel Fuentes. This is where the magic becomes supercharged. Fuentes like Crayford and Haines is an acclaimed musician and his background as a percussionist is mind-blowing. While skilled in the numerous percussion styles and on numerous percussion instruments, he played congas, Afro-Cuban style on this gig. He has performed with a large number of important artists (e.g.George Benson and Isaac Hayes) and since moving from New York to New Zealand he has been the first call percussionist.
Beside him on cencerro (cow-bell) was Adån Tijerina, his instrument being the ‘hammer’ – the instrument which holds the centre and it was deployed well. On upright bass was Mostyn Cole, a versatile and able musician who fits in perfectly whenever he is called upon. At the end of both sets, an electric bass player was called to the bandstand. A young woman named Jacqui Niman from the South Island. The ease with which she hit her groove and dived into this deceptively complex music was impressive.
Both gigs were filled to capacity and due to the size of the audiences, dancing was rendered impossible. As Crayford later pointed out, “I’m sorry that there is no room to dance but do so if you can’. The Mambo Macoco music invites movement and deserves to be danced to. It is rumoured that a gig, perhaps even a residency, could occur soon at the nearby Anthology Lounge. I hope so – count me in.
Mambo Macoco: Jonathan Crayford (keyboards), Nathan Haines (winds and reeds), Miguel Fuentes (congas), Adån Tijerina (cencerro), Mostyn Cole (upright bass), Jacqui Niman (electric bass). The gig took place at the Backbeat Bar, Auckland for the CJC Creative Jazz Club 28th November 2018.