The marriage of jazz and Latin music has made for a lusty relationship - the fevered improvisation of jazz and the racy, syncopated percussion outbursts of Latin are a perfect pair. One of the chief matchmakers in this musical mating has been conga player Mongo Santamaia, who is appearing at Blues Alley through Sunday.
At the heart of his music is a throbbing, rhythmic pulse embellished with swirly counter-rhythms and percussive accents. To these he adds cool American pop and jazz melodies that are varied by contrasting Latin themes and fiery solos.
With bassist Lee Smith and drummer Ray Cruz providing a steady background, Santamaria's congas exploded above the songs, at times lagging behind, then racing forward in flurry of beats. Percussionist Johnny Santana highlighted Santamaria's rhythmic excursions with fleeting timbale flourishes while pianist Milton Hamilton colored the music with soft chords. When the three-piece horn section was not belting out their sharp, brassy harmonies, the musicians would add their own percussive voicings, playing wood blocks, tambourines, cowbells and cabasas.
Mongo Santamaria and his group break no new ground in either jazz of Latin music, but their playing is bright and entertaining - a truly engaging musical affair.