The Cuban-bred Mongo Santamaria has long been noted for his fusion of Latin elements and the jazz sounds of the moment. His beat has remained constant, though, and even last night at Charlie's, as his horn players gave expression to contemporary jazz idioms, Santamaria's hands flew over the skins of his congas in virtuoso execution of Afro-Cuban rhythms.
When the two saxophonists and the trumpeter played in unison the effect was quite traditional. But when one or the other peeled off in solo, it was the jazz voice of the past two decades that took over. The blues were blown on alto saxophone a la Ornette Coleman and followers, albeit with deep feeling, and circular breathing produced a masterly marathon tremolo on soprano saxophone. Trumpet and flugelhorn were generally played more along traditional Latin lines.
The most exciting moments were provided by the interaction of the leader's congas and the timbalas. When the two built up a good head of steam others would be pulled into the irresistible cross rhythms of thudding palms, rim shots, cowbells and drum rolls. A saxophonist would pick up stick and gourd and the pianist would turn percussive on a pair of repeated notes. These were hypnotic moments, but they did not come too often. Mongo Santamaria and his ensemble will be at Charlie's through Sunday.