Pepper Shakers

New Orleans native Jelly Roll Morton, the self-described inventor of jazz, once said, "[If] you can't manage to put tinges of Spanish in your tunes, you will never get the right seasoning, I call it, for jazz."

Early devotees of the improvisational form, including a roll call of jazz greats with surnames like Dominguez, Perez and Tio, would agree.

And so would Los Hombres Calientes.

The band is young, but has quickly established itself. About a month after debuting in early 1998, the outfit landed a deal with the Big Easy's Basin Street Records. A year later the band was the top-selling artist at the Jazz and Heritage Festival, where the Calientes opened for compadre and Latin crossover pioneer Carlos Santana. That year the band also took home a Billboard Music Award for its eponymous debut album, and caught the attention of the notoriously hard-to-please Downbeat magazine, which called the Calientes a "Talent Deserving of Wider Recognition" in two categories. The band recently released its sophomore effort, Los Hombres Calientes, Vol. 2, and is touring on a wave of buzz.

The band's blueprint is simple on paper but devilishly complex in execution. Take all the music Africans have made, no matter where they were forced to live, and filter it through the lens of New Orleans's jazz tradition. The result is an astoundingly focused laser beam of rhythm and melody, a heady pan-African ambrosia. There are smatterings of samba and son, mutterings of montuno, reggae chants, a dose of funk and sprinkles of jazz throughout. There's also tango, second-line and songo, rhumba, bossa nova and mambo -- all products of what band co-founder/percussionist Bill Summers refers to as a primordial "African classical music."

In addition, 22-year-old Calientes trumpeter Irvin Mayfield says: "What we do is we take this African-based music that got dropped off here in New Orleans. When it got dropped off in New Orleans, it was in the land of democracy. Jazz was born from that. The other places it took a different spin. It has some of the same fundamentals as jazz, but obviously the music that got dropped off at the Port of New Orleans manifested itself in the same way as democracy."

Los Hombres Calientes is composed of Mayfield, the husband-and-wife team of Bill and Yvette Bostic-Summers on percussion, Victor Atkins on piano, Edwin Livingston on bass and Cuban drummer Horacio "El Negro" Hernandez. Co-founding drummer Jason Marsalis, the youngest and (according to father Ellis) the most talented of the famed first family of Crescent City jazz, dropped out this year to head his own quintet. The traps remain in good hands with El Negro, who has worked with McCoy Tyner, Santana, Roy Hargrove and the late Tito Puente. For most of his 40 years in jazz, Summers was a Herbie Hancock sideman. And Mayfield ranks, along with Terence Blanchard, Nicholas Payton, Hargrove and Wynton Marsalis, as one of the finest young horns in a city that is now, as it has always been, chock-full of them.

Mayfield, by virtue of his work on the second Calientes release, can more than hold his own. He buoys the band's sound. Elegant and weaving, Mayfield propels notes along, accelerated even faster by the percussion. His playing is more than just an accompaniment to the rhythm. It's an extension and enhancement of it.

Los Hombres Calientes, for better or worse, are to thank for pushing jazz further into booty-bouncing territory and away from the intellectual. Mayfield has a theory why this is significant: "When jazz got out of New Orleans, the average white American did not respect it. If you were shaking your ass, they weren't gonna put it in the same type of venue where you could hear Leonard Bernstein. That's why it brought out the controversy of Miles Davis and Charlie Parker. Everybody was saying, "Look, this is important music. This is our music; this is American music.' " Louis Armstrong was respected as a musician and as an entertainer, but even so, he wasn't respected on the same level as European classical music. Then this guy named Miles came along

Usually words like "fusion" and "world music" bring little joy to this writer's ears. The former conjures up bombastic, rock-influenced misadventures à la Derek Smalls's "Jazz Odyssey" in This Is Spinal Tap, and the latter, an ego-tripping Anglo fronting a band of infinitely superior third-world musicians. Perhaps it's the Calientes' hometown that enables the band to pull off so stunningly what has destroyed so many others. "By being from New Orleans," Mayfield says, "you find that you have the key to being able to adjust to all these things. We're in America, the land of freedom, and so we have that conception of how to put it all together and make it work."

On "Comparsa N.O.," off Vol. 2, Mayfield illustrates his point. In one squalling note, a rollicking Cuban descarga vanishes seamlessly into a Professor Longhair-style second-line rhythm. The effect is stunning. It transports the listener to roughly the year jazz was born, when New Orleans was home to every race and color of face, all tooting their own horns. The Europeanized Creoles read charts, the African-Americans improvised, the Latinos added their cayenne-hot rhythms, and Jelly Roll (among others) synthesized it all. Jazz was, at it is now, a fusion. It has always been world music, something to be taken, according to Los Hombres, and expanded on -- not with the high-tech gizmos and sounds that have come along since its inception, but with traditional instruments and style. Always keep "one foot in 2000 BC and one foot in 2000 AD" is the credo of percussionist Bill Summers. Los Hombres Calientes seem expansive enough to perform that kind of straddle.

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John Nova Lomax
Contact: John Nova Lomax