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The Puerto Rico Jazz Jam 2020 was a celebration of its 10th edition and we fully enjoyed its second-day concert featuring Humberto Ramirez Big Jazz Band.
The two-day event featured in this edition the talents of the maestro Luis “Perico” Ortiz, legendary semi-retired singer Nydia Caro, bassist Oskar Cartaya, and percussion master Giovanni Hidalgo, the maestro Willie Rosario, jazz folklorist William Cepeda and big band members and saxophonists Ivan Rentas and Luis Rodriguez.
And I’m not even mentioning the other maestros that were part of Humberto Ramirez’s big band; master trumpeter Julito Alvarado, “Kachiro” Thompson on congas, and master trombonist Reynaldo Jorge (ex-member of the Fania All-Stars).
To keep this blog short, I’ll try to limit myself to just a few highlights along with my two special moments of the evening; the appearances of Willie Rosario and of Giovanni Hidalgo.
Humberto Ramirez Big Band & William Cepeda
With his well-rehearsed big band, as he plays with them every Monday at the Metropol Restaurant in Isla Verde, Humberto Ramirez opened with the ambitious “Puerto Rico All Stars Theme“. Written by the late maestro Elias Lopés, Humberto was on point when he said that it had been Elias’ “masterpiece”. Not an easy number to perform and make it sound like the very first Puerto Rico All-Star ensemble, the big band delivered masterfully.
Humberto Ramirez took a break to express solidarity with our Puerto Rican brothers in the south of the island, which many are still living in shelters, with the island still doing its occasional tremor, which is keeping everyone on the edge.
William Cepeda came in and played two songs with the big band, the first of which was “Quasi-Plena“. This was a fantastic Jazz composition with a Plena background. William not only showcased his talents as a composer, trombonist, and bandleader but also his skill at playing the “caracol”. Cepeda is known for using conch shells as a wind instrument.
Cepeda delivered a great performance which nicely set the stage for the next guest of honor.
Willie Rosario at Puerto Rico Jazz Jam
If you’ve been around Latin music, you know that “Mr. Afinque” can make a band sound as solid as anyone. And yet, he’s not, and never has been known as a great soloist. However, during this concert, we all witnessed one of the few solos Willie has taken in his long musical career when he did one in “Mambo Inn“.
One cool anecdote that Humberto shared with the audience was about Willie Rosario’s age. Humberto had been making age jokes with William Cepeda, saying Cepada was older than him, and William then saying that Humberto was the eldest of them.
When Humberto returned from Berklee, he joined the Willie Rosario band. As I learned from a recent conversation with Marito Ortiz, he recommended Humberto to replace him in Willie’s band as he was leaving to join his dad’s (Mario Ortiz) band.
So Humberto tells us that at one point in his first few months with the band, Willie had mentioned he was born in 1930. Then in 1986, the band was going on an international tour, and Willie assigned Humberto with handling the band’s passports. When Willie told him it was time to give them out, Humberto opened the passport on top, and it was Willie’s. He took notice of the birth year; 1924, and thought to himself, “ah, he was taking some years off his age“. But he immediately closed the passport and gave it to Willie without saying a word, until this evening.
Willie Rosario is in reality, 94 years old!
No wonder when he was introduced he walked so slowly to the center of the stage.
After “Mambo Inn“, Willie said the following…
Following those words, Willie Rosario received the only standing ovation of the evening, (even the band got on its feet) perhaps out of respect for his contributions to Latin music throughout all these years.
There’s one thing that became immediately evident to me. Giovanni was now using a thick stick to play the conga instead of his left hand. We know he had lost a few fingers due to complications with his diabetes. Back in August, in a previous concert with Humberto Ramirez (you can read about it HERE), he played without the aid of a stick.
Regardless, Giovanni Hidalgo was there to demonstrate that he could still perform at a high level. Giovanni played well, although he limited himself a bit by using the stick. But if you just heard a recording of the concert, you may not notice the still at all.
Yet, on the last song of the evening, Giovanni slowed down the band by asking for a solo. Humberto took note and silenced the band. Giovanni, as if saying, ‘let me show you what I can still do’, took a conga solo that was simply mesmerizing. He left no doubt why he is considered the best conga player in the world. I think that if one day he plays with his feet, he’ll do it equally well.
Giovanni closed the Puerto Rico Jazz Jam 2020 with a bang!
Great Puerto Rico Jazz Jam
This was our first Puerto Rico Jazz Jam concert, and my wife Ivonne and I certainly enjoyed it. This is clearly a quality event, and as William Cepeda pointed out, “it takes a lot of work to put this together (referring to the work Humberto Ramirez puts into organizing this event). Performing the music is the easy part.”
We were lucky to be there and enjoyed every moment of the evening. Being held in the historic Teatro Tapia in Old San Juan, this is an event not to be missed. Count us in for next year!