Friday, August 20, 2010

Jazz concert preview: Five years after Katrina, Los Hombres Calientes to reunite at Orchestra Hall

Originally published at, Friday, Aug. 20, 2010

Irvin Mayfield (L) and Bill Summers
Los Hombres Calientes was living up to its name — the Hot Men — in 2005. A spicy gumbo of rhythms and sounds from New Orleans and Africa, the Caribbean and Brazil, the band had released its fifth CD, “Carnival,” in a series that combines infectious party tunes with ethnomusicology. It had toured and recorded around the world, won a Billboard Latin Music Award and earned a Grammy nomination. It was a huge hit each year at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, where it usually had the top-selling CD.

Co-led by trumpeter Irvin Mayfield and master percussionist Bill Summers, Los Hombres was a band with a future.

Then came Hurricane Katrina. Mayfield lost his father, Irvin Mayfield Sr. And Summers lost everything but his computer’s hard drive. Priorities changed.

On Saturday at Orchestra Hall, Los Hombres Calientes will perform for the first time since the storm. A concert earlier this year at the House of Blues New Orleans, a benefit for Haitian relief, was billed as a Los Hombres reunion. But as Mayfield told me earlier this week by phone from New Orleans, that was really “more Bill and I getting together. The one in Minneapolis is the first time the actual band is getting together.”

And, who knows, it may be the last. Since the storm, Summers and Mayfield have gone their separate ways. Summers, who began his career as one of Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters and went on to record and appear with a very long list of luminaries, is playing with his new band, Jazalsa, and running the Summers Multi Ethnic Institute of Arts. Mayfield is everywhere doing everything: leading his New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, running his own jazz club on Bourbon Street, heading the New Orleans Jazz Institute at the University of New Orleans, serving as the Minnesota Orchestra’s first artistic director of jazz.

A large fan base here

The Saturday concert is highly anticipated and nearly sold out. Over a series of appearances starting in 2000, just two years after the group was formed, Los Hombres built a large and enthusiastic fan base here, making annual treks to the old Dakota (in Bandana Square in St. Paul) and its current home on Nicollet Mall in Minneapolis. Mayfield credits the Twin Cities with breaking the group nationally.
Whose idea was the reunion? “I don’t know if I would say it was any one person’s idea,” Mayfield says. “It was the fans’ idea.” (Last year Mayfield told the New Orleans Times-Picayune, “Although I’ve done a lot, [Los Hombres Calientes] is the thing I am most known for. Around the world, wherever I am, people love that band.”)

Lilly Schwartz, the orchestra’s director of pops and special projects, “pushed to make it happen,” Mayfield says. “She put it on the schedule before we got it all together. So Bill and I decided we’d come back and do this one date. Outside of New Orleans, there’s no better place to do this music than Minneapolis.”

What was it like to play with Summers in February, after more than four years apart? “It set the stage for Bill and I to regain a mutual respect for what each of us brought to the table,” Mayfield says. “Bill is in that period of his career where he’s looking back. That’s typically not where I look at things from. Not that Bill isn’t still looking forward, but there’s 30 years difference between us. When we were co-leading a band, that’s where a lot of challenge came from. That’s also what created some of the magic.

“It’s one of those relationships where when we have agreements it’s beautiful, and when we have disagreements it’s crazy. All that was continuous through the years we were together as a band.”

Five CDs released from 1998 to 2005

We won’t hear anything brand-new on Saturday, but it won’t matter. The five CDs Los Hombres released from 1998-2005 comprise a wealth of exciting, polyrhythmic music. (Side note: All came out on Basin Street Records, which was hit hard by Katrina but survived.)

The first two, the eponymous debut (1998) and Volume 2 (1999), are full of reimagined standards and original compositions by Summers, Mayfield, and the group’s third founder and drummer at the time, Jason Marsalis. For Volumes 3-5, “New Congo Square” (2000), “Vodou Dance” (2003), and “Carnival” (2005), the band traveled to Brazil, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Cuba, Trinidad, and Haiti, learning from, playing with, and recording local musicians, connecting the sonic dots between the African diaspora and New Orleans. So there’s no shortage of material to draw from.

“Consider it a compilation performance,” Mayfield suggests. “All that music, all those islands, New Orleans, Brazil, Jamaica — so much music. We’ll play until it feels like time to stop.”

Over the years, Los Hombres was more a fluid project than a fixed band. Mayfield and Summers were the core, but other members came and went. Marsalis left in 2000 and was replaced by Horacio “El Negro” Hernandez, then Ricky Sebastian and Jamal Batiste. David Pulphus was the original bass player, followed by Edwin Livingston. Pianists included Victor Atkins and Ronald Markham. Plus, on the CDs, there were guests (Kermit Ruffins, Delfeayo Marsalis, John Boutte, Rebirth Brass Band, Mardi Gras Indians, members of Burning Spear) and field recordings of indigenous music.

The Minneapolis incarnation of Los Hombres Calientes will be almost all musicians who have played with the band in the past: Mayfield, Summers, and fellow Crescent City residents Aaron Fletcher on saxophone, Leon Brown on trumpet, Michael Watson on trombone, Ronald Markham on piano, and Jamal Batiste on drums. The exception: New York salsa star Ruben Rodriguez on bass.

The forecast: Hot.

Here’s “Fofori Fo Firi” from a live performance. And here’s a music video of “Vodou Hoodoo Babalu” from Basin Street.

Los Hombres Calientes, 8 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 21, Orchestra Hall,  ($22-$60 VIP). Tickets online or call 612-371-5656.

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