I haven’t seen the Gabriel Alegría Afro-Peruvian Sextet so elegant, in sound or deportment, as they were Monday night at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola. The spot has an elegance in its own right, with a view of Central Park and a good, Southern inspired menu. The band has appeared there before, in a series sponsored by WGBO, but this time they were part of Jazz at Lincoln Center’s regular program. Last time around, they had to fight a bit to win over the savvy crowd. This time, starting as they did before, with a version of Gershwin’s “Summertime,” the notes piqued like stitches in an embroidery. They had every ear in the house from the first one.
I have followed the sextet for years, and in support of their last fundraiser I commissioned a song on 10, their new album. That interest stated, it seems to me to be the strongest of their studio recordings, capturing consistently on all ten tracks, split 50/50 between Peruvian and North American standards, the vigor and liveness that have drawn me to their concerts repeatedly. That it is threaded with guest artistry, from Ron Carter to a children’s choir in Perú, makes the consistency all the more evident. To see them live will always be essential, but with 10 in hand it is a little less absolutely so. It will be released on vinyl in September, but a CD preview is available on the band’s current tour of East Coast and Midwestern cities.
The album celebrates a decade that the sextet has been together, with comity and continuity. Laura Andrea Leguía (sax), Freddy “Huevito” Lobatón (cajón), Hugo Alcázar (drums), and Alegría himself (trumpet) have been there the whole time. Yuri Juárez (guitar), at eight years, barely avoided charter status. Other than Alcázar, who is based in Perú, the core group was all at Dizzy’s, and something about the elegance of their playing crystallized their individual contributions to the band’s sound and feel. It is apparent, when Leguía plays it, that the saxophone, tenor or alto, is not so much played with the breath as a conduit for it. She is the main transmitter of the band’s spiritual energy because they, in an almost real way, breathe through her. Lobatón, meanwhile, pours rhythms into the gaps, not just with the cajón and other Peruvian instruments (including his feet), but also with exclamations and asides that are a direct link to the social origins of the music on the Afro-Peruvian coast. This provides a definition of place, while Juárez on the guitar defines the larger space, a glimpsed, vast landscape beyond the immediate, the mas alla. On this terrain, the trumpeter Alegría, as band leader, exploits the summoning character of his instrument, that both releases and commands, calling sound to procession, nudging it to follow, seducing it to swell and stop.
With Alcázar normally in Perú, the sextet in the U.S. has relied on multiple drummers, the most frequent of whom, Shirazette Tinnin, is now playing for The Meredith Vieira Show. So on Monday the percussion slot was filled by the sharp Australian Daniel Susnjar, whose restrained wit has always belied his boldness. On bass the skilled Peruvian newcomer Mario Cuba alternated with John Benítez, a past stalwart. I was struck, when Benítez came on, by the profundity of his tone, its deep, vibratory richness.
The sextet played a mix of familiar tunes and selections from 10, which I won’t recap in detail. I will just say that the elegance of their playing, the precision of the handoffs, the smoothness of the night’s emotional arc, in no way surprised me coming from this intelligent and well-assorted band. But there was something new in the fineness with which their sound was honed. Recording 10 had to have required an even greater than usual complexity of craft, and perhaps it has carried over to what they do live. They have always been polished and vivacious. Add to that now that they are outright stylish.
For more on the Gabriel Alegría Afro-Peruvian Sextet, visit them here. They will play at Club Bonafide on Jan. 29-30, 2016: info. Click on Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola for information on events at that venue.