Three is a magic number for rumba singer-percussionist Pedrito Martinez. Saturday night at the Kennedy Center Jazz Club, he played an electrifying solo on a trio of bata drums, the goblet-shaped instruments used in Santería rituals. For the rest of the 80-minute performance, Martinez slapped complex, supple Afro-Cuban polyrhythms on three conga drums — one more than most players use.
Yet the Havana-born, New Jersey-based musician was not accompanied by his usual cohort of three. The regular bassist, Alvaro Benavides, and bongo player, Jhair Sala, were on hand. But singer-pianist Ariacne Trujillo couldn’t make the show and was replaced by Gonzalo Grau. There was also a fifth musician, Luis Faife, who played tenor and soprano saxophones and occasionally flute. Although the Venezuela-bred Benavides wore a Pink Floyd T-shirt, the group sounded less eclectic than on its year-old debut album.
Trujillo can expertly perform the cantering, highly percussive riffs that propel much upbeat Latin music but is also influenced by European classical music. Without her piano and voice, the group’s music was less lyrical, if no less intricate. Grau, also originally from Venezuela, tended to play circular vamps that both unified the music and reignited it after slower passages and a cappella chants.
The result sounded like a stripped-down salsa band, minus the lush arrangements and such customary timbres as the metallic clatter of the timbales. Peru-born Sala added some clangs when he switched from bongos to cowbell, notably during a long duet with Martinez that brought the show to its final crescendo.
The band leader sang in a high, sometimes piercing tenor, but most of the vocals were unison or call-and-response, the latter another sign of Caribbean music’s African legacy. Songs mostly yielded to instrumental workouts, and everyone except Faife seemed to be essentially a percussionist. Benavides, for example, often banged his bass, hitting strings with his palms rather than plucking them with his fingers.
All the musicians were allotted solos, but Martinez’s were the highlights. The drummer, whose given name is Pedro, is probably called “Pedrito” because he began performing when he was just 11. All grown up in a black tank top that exhibited both his biceps and his tattoos, the 41-year-old seemed as much athlete as musician, and his broad grin emphasized the music’s joyous physicality.
Indeed, the ensemble’s sound was so propulsive that it continually called attention to the most crucial thing the show lacked: a dance floor.
Jenkins is a freelance writer.