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Beat Crazy

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 8/1/2001

Rumba Club

Rumba Club


Drummers usually sit in the back. But Rumba Club is not your usual band. When the Baltimore nonet performs, its four percussionists are up front. Part of this is practical. Stages in jazz clubs tend to be small, and because the group's three horn players and one bassist stand up, it makes sense for the seated percussionists and keyboardist to form the row in front, as sitting if for a class photo.

But there are also aesthetic reasons for this setup. Rhythm is the primary ingredient in Rumba Club's sound, so it makes sense that the rhythm-makers occupy the foreground. The key to the group's intoxicating Afro-Cuban jazz is the way each percussionist plays a slightly different pattern, and how those overlapping designs lock together in a groove that is danceable and yet endlessly intricate.

Such was the case at the Northwood Shopping Center's New Haven Lounge, where, in mid-July, Rumba Club held an album-release party for Radio Mundo, its fifth disc and fourth for the respected New York jazz label Palmetto Records. On the rumba tune "Sonaremos el Tambo," Orlando Cotto held down the bottom beat by slapping his three conga drums, while Sam Turner established the high-pitched pulse on a cowbell. In between, Jim Hannah rattled the timbales and Rudy Morales shook his maracas. All four men sat out front where you could see their hands at work, each sticking with his separate, syncopated pattern no matter what else was going on around him. The result was a dizzying swirl of rhythms that always coalesced on the one.

Even when Rumba Club tackled a hard-bop classic like Donald Byrd's "Tanya," the group set it to a Latin cha-cha beat, with Turner switching to bongo drums and Morales to guiro, while Alex Norris and Paul Hannah played Byrd's melody on flugelhorn and alto sax. Norris' own modal composition, "Fortitude," slid through scalar chord changes, but the timbales, congas and two chekeres kept a dance beat going beneath the solos by Norris' trumpet and Tim Murphy's piano.

All three of these numbers are on Radio Mundo, which should propel Rumba Club to a new level of national prominence. It was one of the five most-added albums on jazz radio after its release. Two days after this Baltimore gig, the band headlined at the Blue Note, one of New York's top jazz clubs, and next month the group does a concert at the Hirshhorn Museum of Art and a four-night stand at the Jazz Bakery in Los Angeles. With this increased success comes increased difficulty in keeping the band together. Norris lives in New York, where he plays with the likes of the Mingus Big Band and Manny Oquendo y Libre. Cotto has landed a teaching job in Illinois. Trombonist Craig Considine is also a member of local band Boister, and Murphy also plays with Baltimore's Gary Thomas and Germany's Peter Herborn. Keeping it all together is Rumba Club founder Josh Schwartzman. Playing a solid-body upright bass at the New Haven, the balding, gray-goateed figure doesn't say much--he leaves the emcee duties to Considine--but his forceful bass lines form the bridge between the pulsating percussion section and the harmony-stretching horns and keys. Schwartzman provided six of the arrangements for Radio Mundo, including the imaginative notions to turn John Coltrane's "Straight Street" into a mambo, Cole Porter's "Every Time We Say Goodbye" into a bolero, and Byrd's "Tanya" into a cha-cha.

When Rumba Club played the latter tune at the New Haven Lounge, one couple got up to dance in the aisles while more sedentary jazzheads leaned over the railing to soak in the complexities of the rhythms and the variations in the solos. That's the genius of this band--they turn jazz into dance music and dance music into jazz.

Rumba Club performs at the Belvedere's 13th Floor Aug. 11.

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