A hot date
by Stephanie Kadel-Taras
I'm not a seasoned listener to Cuban jazz. I have to say that up front, because my brother-in-law, Marc Taras, is the host of Cuban Fantasy on WEMU and writes about Cuban music with the skill of a devotee. In comparison, I simply don't have the knowledge to place local Cuban jazz ensemble Tumbao in its proper context.
What I can say with certainty is that a night out with Tumbao behind the microphones is a happenin' time. My husband and I saw them at Goodnite Gracie, where they play every first and third Friday, and we danced until we were sweating and sore. The dark room was buzzing with the young and hip in fancy duds, sipping martinis and cosmopolitans, while the sexy, sun-drenched tunes of this not-so-young but very hip band snaked through the room like cigar smoke. Few listeners were on the dance floor, but I just couldn't keep my body still with those Cuban rhythms calling to me.
Tumbao started performing live only in March 2003, but the word is out and the gigs are pouring in. Cuban jazz is a hot genre right now, and these musicians understand how to mix the polyrhythms of the island sound with lilting or complex jazz improvs that make this style easy for new listeners to access. With three members of the band writing original instrumentals, plus a rich history of Cuban classics to cover, Tumbao's repertoire ranges from slinky ballads to high-energy grooves without, well, missing a beat.
I found myself thinking how lucky we are to have professional musicians like these in the Ann Arbor area, who are not only dedicated to their art but also driven to entertain us, even if they'll never become rich and famous for doing so. Band leader Paul VornHagen has been around for years as a jazz performer and music teacher, has won three Detroit Music Awards, and demonstrates his skill with sax and flute lines that
will sear into your skin or break your heart. Sven Anderson's piano solos float above the dense undercurrent with unexpected trills and turns, confirming the accomplished career he's had with such greats as Earl Klugh and Jimmy Scott. John Barron is also a veteran musician whose compositions on the group's CD, Montuno Salad, prove he's got more to offer than just a cool bass line.
The percussion section really gives this band its entertainment edge. Alberto Nacif, on congas, is the only member of Tumbao who is not a full-time music professional, and that's only because he's a physician in his off time. He was the original DJ for Cuban Fantasy, which he gave up in order to focus more on performing. He's incredibly cute on stage, with a big smile that says, "I'm having the time of my life." Add the talented, wildly rhythmic Javier M. Barrios on timbales to the percussion mix, and you can feel your hips start to shimmy. Just be prepared to sweat through your clothes.
Tumbao is at Goodnite Gracie on two Fridays, January 7 and 21, and at the Firefly Club on Friday, January 28.
[Originally published in January, 2005.]