An Electric Evening of Latin-Jazz: The Alex Bellegarde Quintet
From the first notes that reverberated out of Alex Bellegarde’s bass, it was clear that his five-piece Latin-Jazz ensemble – The Alex Bellegarde Quintet – was prepared to deliver a high-energy performance to the patrons of Upstairs Jazz Bar & Grill. Since I had arrived to the venue knowing that the band was a regular (biweekly) act at the venue, and that the set I was attending was the second out of the ensemble’s three sets that night, I came to the venue with some concern that the performance I was about to see would come off as tired or uninspired. However, much to my delight, I was quickly proven wrong.
Arriving minutes before the start of the set, I sat down at a corner booth, ordered a beer and some nachos, and began to take in my surroundings. Having never been to ‘Upstairs’ before, I found that I very much enjoyed the intimate nature of the venue including the candlelit tables, brick walls, small seating, and egalitarian stage (which, by not being too raised, allowed for a stronger, and more equal, connection between artist and audience). I quickly felt as though a return visit for more jazz in the future was imperative, no matter what my impression of the performance at hand would be.
Since this was a “Latin-Jazz” quintet that I was seeing, I was prepared for the instrumental composition of the ensemble to be different from many of the jazz ensembles that I was familiar with – and I was correct. The main difference, in terms of instrumentation, lay in the rhythm section, where the percussion instruments featured were: a pair of conga drums (played at the back of the stage by Domier Gonzales), a guiro, and an assortment of other handheld instruments, which, together, replaced the traditional jazz drum kit. The band’s vocalist, Jesus Cantero, was featured front and center when he sang lyrics in soothing Spanish. At times, however, he would recede to the back of the stage alongside Gonzales, in order to double as a kind of backup percussionist using the guiro, or the cowbell to play a stable rhythm that would function as a counterpoint to the more dynamic beat of the conga. Rounding out the rhythm
section were bassist and bandleader Alex Bellegarde, and pianist Michel Cantero, who frequently played the lead melody of different song sections throughout the evening. Situated at the left of the stage, Cantero’s piano was facing inward, so that he was interestingly making eye contact with his bandmates (specifically Bellegarde at center-stage), instead of making eye contact with the audience. The ensemble’s fifth and final member, at the right of the stage, was saxophonist and backup vocalist Nestor Rodriguez, who played the lead melody during most songs, either in conjunction with Cantero’s piano, or by himself. Casually dressed in button-downs, with drinks at their side, the ensemble projected an easy-going, laid-back and loose feel, encouraging and inviting the audience to join in on their fun.
“I came to the venue with some concern that the performance I was about to see would come off as tired or uninspired. However, much to my delight, I was quickly proven wrong.”
That is not to say, however, that the music itself was in any way laid-back or loose. On the contrary, the ensemble’s layered percussion gave their songs a distinct polyrhythmic feel, giving the music and the audience a danceable and rhythm-dominated drive throughout the night, which kept the music interesting to listen to from both an aesthetic point of view, and an analyzing point of view. The seemingly endless variety of rhythms laid down by Bellegarde – who avoided the restrictive “walking bass” form all night –was perfectly layered on top of the percussionists’ complex rhythms that left me feeling as though I was listening to something new, even when sections of songs were being repeated. Jesus Cantero, for his part, “sang his heart out” admirably, infusing the performance with charisma, swagger, and energy. However, at times, I felt as though Cantero’s vocals were too loud in the sound mix at the expense of the piano and congas. Even Cantero’s backup percussion, while musically interesting, was often too loud in the mix for my liking. This lead me to wonder whether Cantero, or the “sound guy,” were used to a different technical set-up for the sound than was used during this performance, or whether it was simply the case that loud vocals and percussion were simply a fundamental element of Latin-style music that I was not personally partial to.
Aside from these minor issues, I very much enjoyed the quintet’s performance, and it was difficult for me to pick out anything to criticize about the ensemble’s brand of Latin-jazz itself. Conga player Domier Gonzales’ performance was good precisely because he didn’t particularly stand out – he selflessly allowed the other musicians carrying the melody to take the spotlight on many occasions. Saxophonist Nestor Rodriguez simply shone whenever he was called upon to improvise a solo; effortlessly playing quick runs up and down his instrument that were both technically and melodically impressive. What allowed me to enjoy the performance the most, however, was the interaction that occurred between Michel Cantero on the piano, Alex Bellegarde on the bass, and the audience. Although having a piano facing away from the audience seemed risky at first, it actually turned out to be a strength of the performance, as Cantero and Bellegarde would frequently make eye contact with each other not only to keep time, but also, to make funny faces, dance to the music, and to generally just groove out together. The audience would frequently notice the two band member’s shenanigans and join in on the fun; feeding off their energy by laughing and clapping along to the music.
Perhaps the highlight of the night for me was seeing Michel Cantero turning around to embrace the members of the audience sitting at the table directly behind him. At one point, one of these members was pretending to mimic Jesus Cantero’s percussion playing with a knife and a wine glass, and when Michel Cantero noticed, he just about fell off of his piano bench laughing. This kind of light-heartedness made the ensemble likeable both as performers and as people, and only served to make their performance more enjoyable as a whole.
Once the set ended, I was slightly surprised to see the performers so casually step down from the stage and walk through the tables up to the bar, so that they were mingling with their audience. This was surprising to me based on the general perception that the artist is somehow “above” the audience. However, I then remembered that when it comes to jazz, all participants are meant to be equal, including the audience, and I felt grateful that I had come to this performance. I left the venue sure that I would be coming back soon.
The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Bull & Bear.