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Pianist and composer Oscar Hernandez brought his Latin jazz ensemble, the NY-LA Connection to the Saville Theatre on Oct.11, as a part of the KSDS Jazz 88 fall concert series.

Hernandez is a two-time Grammy Award winner for his work with the Spanish Harlem Orchestra. He also spent 13 years with Ruben Blades.

The NY-LA Connection's featured soloist is the venerable saxophone/clarinet/flute master Justo Almario, who was a headline act at the 2010 Music & Arts Festival in Ocean Beach.

Rounding out the ensemble was the young doublebassist Carlitos Del Puerto, who's main gig is with pop-jazz trumpeter Chris Botti, and the explosive rhythm tandem of drummer Walter Rodriguez and congaluero Christian Moraga.

A "surprise" guest was local jazz hero Gilbert Castellanos, who sat in on three tunes.

The concert began with a Hernandez original, "New Beginnings", which alternated between a surging modal groove and a straight-up Latin section. Almario soloed first--he's got a big sound on the tenor, reminiscent of Dexter Gordon or early Coltrane. Del Puerto was next, and he mines the divide between the more deliberate and measured sound of Latin jazz icon Israel "Cachao" Lopez and the wild flurries of Eddie Gomez quite well.

On "One Day Soon", Hernandez balanced Almario's racing scales and arpeggios with perfectly placed block chords and a lilting montuno, which grew heated on the vamp out--punctuated by the slamming accents of Rodriguez, who coaxed more music from his tiny drum-kit than many lesser drummers could wrangle from a store-room of equipment.

"Rumba Urbana" surged out of the gates with a lightening fast piano/sax unison and lurching rhythmic motif before shifting to a more laid back feel. Almario's tenor soared and swooped over the throbbing pulse of Del Puerto, who swayed to and fro with his instrument as if it wore a slinky red dress. With his '70s Afro and animated stage presence, (after each solo, he would almost lay his bass down), Del Puerto is a natural showman.

As for Hernandez, he prefers to lead the group with precise rhythmic placement and careful dynamics to a more overt display of virtuosity . By mid-concert, however, his solo's became more declarative, with tasteful use of velocity and ornamentation. By the time he played "Danzon For My Father," the audience was primed for his expansive and exploratory soliloquy which was even more satisfying, because he made them wait for it.

Castellanos joined the group for the Machito workhorse, "Mambo Inn", which had a short phrase from Charlie Parker's "Scrapple From The Apple" slipped in to it's tricky structure. The trumpeter exploited the pinpoint accents with tart fractals, squeezing some notes and smearing others. He stayed on for the fun of "ESPN Blues," clearly enjoying the company of the lock-tight ensemble.

Moraga's conga solo was the highlight of the final tune, the cleverly titled, "Last of the Mo'Ricans." The hand drummer spun webs of highly charged multi-rhythmic ideas, performed with such velocity as to induce a hypnotic effect. A shorter drum solo from Rodriguez followed, and again, his almost violent barrage of sticks on skins was highly effective.

Latin music is designed to be exciting, and the NY-LA Connection fulfilled that aesthetic with admirable dexterity.

Pictured at top left, Oscar Hernandez Photo top center by Anthony Cecena

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