Alex Wilson’s Afro Cuban Gospel Project and Dorance Lorza’s Sexteto Café light up London Latin Jazz Fest

Last week the London Latin Jazz Festival at Pizza Express Jazz Club, Dean Street saw pianist and festival curator Alex Wilson join forces with gospel singer and keyboard player Nicky Brown, for their Afro Cuban Gospel Project, following two sold-out gigs from Eliane Correa on Tuesday and J-Sonics with Grace Rodson on Wednesday, both of whom had opened the festival with a bang. Wilson first made a guest appearance with Brown’s 80 strong choir at the 2009 Cheltenham Jazz Festival, but this was the first time the former had brought along his regular rhythm section, and Brown had pared down his usual chorus to just three backing singers. Both artists had sent tracks to each other in preparation, but the full cast hadn’t come together until the day before the show.

The potential of their alliance was revealed early in the night with a hard grooving 12/8 version of ‘Amazing Grace’, complete with funky synth solos and latin licks from Wilson. Next came ‘Soon and Very Soon’ in tribute to the late great Andraé Crouch. Brown was in his element in this song, providing Glasper-esque keyboard interjections between his powerful vocals. Clearly enjoying himself, at the end of the bridge he shouted “I wanna sing that again” and launched straight into a repeat of the section, with Wilson and bassist Davide Mantovani grinning and catching up just in time.

There was a great spirit of exchange and openness in the air with latin maestro Wilson giving a reading of Oscar Peterson’s ‘Hymn to Freedom’, the first track he’d listened to from the gospel tradition. The range of influences then only got broader as the reggae of Bob Marley’s ‘One Love’ was followed by a traditional Afro Cuban prayer melody, sung by drummer Davide Giovannini. Just when the rules of engagement seemed to have been established for the night, Level 42’s Mike Lindup made a surprise guest appearance and took the roof off the club with a rendition of their 1985 hit ‘Something About You’, of course now with added montunos.

Continuing via a distinctly Cuban ‘Oh Happy Day’, the last song of the set was contemporary gospel staple ‘Blessed’, which showcased Brown’s rich and soulful voice and his ability to work the crowd. Even Lindup was spotted back at his table adding an impromptu clave with spoon and wine glass. Wilson and Brown had created a truly inclusive atmosphere and were having tremendous fun. Urged back to the stage by chants of “One more song!” their encore was ‘This Little Light of Mine’, for which members of the audience took turns to come on stage and sing a chorus.

The following night, Colombian vibraphonist Dorance Lorza and his band Sexteto Café (pictured top) brought Latin sounds from 1960s New York and drew on the small group salsa tradition of acts such as the Joe Cuba Sextet and the New Swing Sextet. Vocalist José Cascaret led proceedings in typical sonero style, with a punchy tenor register, impressive güiro playing and legs that danced independently of his upper body.

Although some of the more straight ahead salsa numbers had a tendency to blur into one, the band changed things up successfully with an exploration of the danzón tradition in ‘Lullaby for a Queen’, a slower number with scaled-back percussion, which allowed space for nicely judged solos from Lorza and pianist Anna Gillespie. ‘Step One’ then took things right back to the heart of the 1960s New York vibe, in a boogaloo hybrid of American soul music and latin rhythms: the tight stops and starts of the unison bass and piano lines setting off the upbeat chord changes and bringing people out of their seats.

‘Cha Cha Cha Para Adela’ followed with a more measured groove, but no dip in intensity. Venezuelan percussionist Ernesto Marichales and his Colombian counterpart Alejandro Martinez took turns to fire off increasingly daring solos and cross-rhythms. As the set drew to a close, waiters and pizza chefs were being drawn into the crowd to dance between the tables.

– Jonathan Carvell

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