Mambo Kings and Tropical Weather Transported Grant Park to Cuba

Photo by Bob Benenson.

The Grant Park Orchestra does not often play back-up to a jazz combo. On the other hand, the Mambo Kings, veteran performers of Afro-Cuban jazz, have been teaming up with orchestras for more than 20 years. With the band and the orchestra meshing and temperatures justifying the concert’s subtitle of Hot Latin Nights, attendees at Jay Pritzker Pavilion on August 7 were treated to an hour and a half of pretty much pure joy.

Admittedly, the orchestra had the audience even before the five-man ensemble took the stage, setting the mood with George Gershwin’s Cuban Overture. Gershwin was inspired to write this piece by a vacation he took to Cuba in 1932.

He had a knack for capturing a sense of place: Just as his Rhapsody in Blue expressed the confidence and sensuality of New York City in the 1920s, and his An American in Paris evoked the fast-paced traffic of that city, his Cuban Overture brought the danceable rhythms of Havana to an America that then saw Cuba as exotic. Maracas and congas kept the tempo for the brass and strings in the uptempo early and late portions of the piece, while a mellower middle section featured the sinuous clarinet that is a Gershwin trademark.

Photo by Bob Benenson.

Then the Mambo Kings—Richard DeLaney, the pianist and the group’s composer/arranger; John Viavattine wailing on soprano and tenor sax; percussionist Freddy Colón and conga player Tony Padilla keeping the beat-beat-beat-beat-beat on the drums; and bass player Hector Diaz—took the energy up a few notches. Their program was a curious combination of original tunes, Latin classics, and Latinized covers of famous jazz and pop tunes.

After DeLaney’s Melodia got the set off to a toe-tapping start, the band then aced his arrangement of jazz great Dave Brubeck’s Blue Rondo à la Turk. DeLaney then told the audience that if they knew the next tune, he’d know how old they were. It was The Beatles’ Day Tripper: DeLaney explaining that he always thought it would work well as a cha-cha, and the band took it on a one-way ticket from Liverpool to Havana.

Originals then alternated with long popular tunes. DeLaney, who grew up in Peru, explained that his Marinera is a delicate dance, from a section of that country where music has a strong African influence. The impulsive Caribe by contemporary Dominican Grammy Award winner Michael Camilo, was followed by DeLaney’s Danzón a la Antigua, which means “old-fashioned dance” (and apparently has nothing to do with the island of Antigua).

Photo by Bob Benenson.

The penultimate song of the set list was El Cumbanchero, a tune that was so ubiquitous in the early 1960s that President John F. Kennedy dubbed composer Rafael Hernandez as “Mr. Cumbanchero.” This is a fast-paced, brass-driven tune, and unless my memory is playing tricks, I remember it as being popular with magicians who made frequent appearances on television variety shows.

The Mambo Kings capped the concert with its biggest crowd pleaser: Oye Como Va. Though written by Latin giant Tito Puente, this tune is most identified with the 1971 cover by the Latin rock band Santana. The latter, upbeat version featured by the Mambo Kings got the audience up dancing in their seats (and some in the aisles, though this was discouraged by the Grant Park ushers).

The Grant Park Orchestra was in the unusual position of playing second fiddle, providing some lush backing to a concert dominated by the headliner combo. DeLaney paid tribute to the orchestra and the venue, and noted that Carlos Kalmar, the orchestra’s Uruguay-born artistic director, gave him the rare opportunity to speak Spanish to a conductor.

Photo by Bob Benenson.

The Grant Park Music Festival returns this weekend (Friday and Saturday) to more familiar ground with English composer Frederick Delius’ choral work A Mass of Life: A Celebration of the Human Spirit. This 1905 piece is one of three major works influenced by Frederick Nietzsche’s novel Also Spoke Zarathustra: The others are Gustav Mahler’s Third Symphony, and the most familiar of all, Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra, written in 1896 and launched into orbit 72 years later by film director Stanley Kubrick, who used it as the theme music for his 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Bob Benenson
Bob Benenson

Bob Benenson is publisher/writer/photographer of Local Food Forum, a new newsletter that covers the broad sweep of the Chicago region’s food community. He is a longtime advocate for a better, healthier, more sustainable food system and is an avid home cook who gets most of his delicious ingredients from local farmers.

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