Nearly three years ago at the JVC Jazz Festival in New York City, trumpeter Gilbert Castellanos appeared with the Los Angeles quintete Black Note in a performance that came off as pretty shaky. And although alto player James Mahoney and Castellanos soloed at length, they never really told a story.
The forty-five minute appearance was forgivable, for it proved that neo-hard bop isn't an easy ride for imitators. Hard-boppers don't only have to master their instruments, but they have to play as a tight ensemble with drive and fire.
Drummer Art Blakey's 50's and 60's Jazz Messengers are the model bands for today's hard-bop players. The work required to build formal complexity, rythmic intensity and heat doesn't materialize around pickup bands and session players. Although Blakey's personnel changed every few years, all his bands experimented with new introductions to tunes, breaks and patterns, finally putting their stamp on everything they played.
The Messengers created a group sound without sacrificing the "hot-star" improvisor aesthetic that Blakey thought was so necessary for jazz's commercial success. And while Blakey had his share of burning soloists – Clifford Brown, Wayne Shorter, Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard, among many others – he also pushed his young stars out of their shells and demanded compositions and arrangements from them.
Castellanos, born in 1972 in Guadalajara and raised in Fresno, admires both Blakey's leadership and his bands' power and range of expression. As important as the hard-bop concept figures in his own 2-year-old quintet, it's natural that Castellanos wants to pay homage to one of his idols by re-creating the dual front-line and sound of the Jazz Messengers.
Tommorow night at El Campo Ruse, the band on stage will consist of Castellanos, drummer Brett Sanders, tenor saxaphonist Gary Lefebvre, pianist Joe Bagg and bassist Danton Bolder. The quintet will tackle Bobby Timmons' "Moanin'" and "Dat Dere," Benny Golson's "Along Came Betty" and Shorter's "Ping Pong," "One for One" and "On the Ginza."
"I want to do justice to the music, to be on the level it was recorded on," Castellanos said about his intentions in using the Messenger arrangements. "I want the same atmosphere, the harmonies, the horns phrasing together, the ensemble playing."
While it's possible that the result could sound like a repeat of the original recordings, skeptics should know that Castellanos nearly blew the walls off El Campo Ruse last August with his Lee Morgan show.
Tommorow night will feature the highly creative Sanders, who knows Blakey's trademark press rolls, fills and underlying patterns. But Sanders is very much his own player, known for fluid chains of ideas that develop, instead of just moving from one section of the kit to the other. When he and Castellanos lock in, the result is a conversation in the language of extended lines, metamorphic patterns, and half-valved and bent notes.
"The drums and the trumpet connect well," says Castellanos. "Incredible trumpet solos have drummers behind them, lik Freddie Hubbard with Art Blakey, or Lee Morgan… I look at them as one. It's the brass instrument itself. When the drummer plays and incredible feel, it makes me feel that I have to finish it off."
That relationship, escalated by an audience hungry for hard bop, should really whip some fire into the music.
El Campo Ruse (http:www.n2.net/ecruse/) opens a door on the alternative art world of the California/Mexico border. El Campo Ruse is an artist-run collective dedicated to "addressing the issues of the Tijuana/San Diego binational region" and "social change through the arts." This site ushers you through their16th street artspace in Downtown San Diego and a guided tour of what local journalist Kate Haug calls a "cache of events imbibed with the effervescence of experimentation and a democratic lunge toward the definition of art." You'll attend poetry, jazz and performance art events, view public art exhibits, read fascinating articles about life in the Border, and visit ArteBoffo Publishing, the Border Art Workshop, the Taco Shop Poets, Bear State Theatre and a list of "related links" like no other. Talk about local flavor. Undiluted, uncensored, this site is an excellent example of how the web can provide international access to a very strong regional project.
I know there have been those moments when you wanted to engage the indefatigable
mania of a serial killer, enjoy a contemplative moment sitting on the bricks, or listen to
jazz till four in the morning. If you've been sucessful satiating your desires, you've
entered some of San Diego's alternative art spaces. Through their diverse offerings, the
Rita Dean Gallery/Museum of Death, the Spruce Street Forum and El Campo Ruse host a
cache of events imbibed with the effervescense of experimentation and a democratic
lunge towards the definition of art.
Without the million dollar operating budget of a museum, these organizations can
take risks in promoting the nascent rather than the mainstream. Gary Ghirardi, Board
Member of El Campo Ruse, describes the Ruse as "a process space not a reaction space."
If you walk by El Campo Ruse today, some form of jazz will probably follow you
down the street. On Saturday from midnight to four a.m., the rooms of this former
trade school fill with musicians, eager jazz enthusiasts and the clean cut, sincere youth.
At Out Late Jazz musicians walk on and off stage playing with one another in an
improvisational manner. It is a theatrical event where you can hear three different
saxophone players, two different drummers and one hot trumpet player all in one night.
Sinse its inception in 1976, El Campo Ruse has been a nomadic,
artist-run collective dedicated tp " addressing the issues of the Tijuana/San Diego
binational region" and "social change through the arts." The 16th Street location is the
Ruse's fourth in its 20-year history. And as with any organization which is
collectively run, it has had a myriad of forms reflecting the interests of its members. The Ruse's
current interest in the aural includes spoken word events such as the Taco Shop Poets
and Native Tongues, an event which brings musicians and poets together. Similar to
the other galleries, the performance space at the Ruse also exhibits visual art work.
As a community organization, the Ruse incorporates regional events and experience
into its programming. While a sense of location is often taken with provincialism,
it is fundamental to the ruse's success in culling diverse audiences and responding to
the evolving culture of this binational region.
For Artists and Audiences, these multifaceted spaces provide several things: a chance
to experience new, innovative work by burgeoning and established artists; and a small,
intimate venue where the informal quality encourages lingering instead of expedient exits.
The experimental projects of these galleries, in both the arts and the comingling of
bodies in a room, generates an affability and excitement which welcomes and
tantalizes any audience.
Representing the masses on this Friday night are the Mexican immigrant cooks toiling in the steam behind the counter and two young female customers in sullen makeup and tight jeans. They watch the poets in the parking lot through the glass, warily.
Richard McCaskill, a 27-year-old ex-Marine with a saxophone slung around his neck, blows an introductory Coltranesque riff into the microphone. The notes wander across the crowded parking lot of the mini-mall into the intersection of the 25th and Broadway, a stark arena ringed by a fire station, Kentucky Fried Chicken and 7-Eleven. Neon-streaked concrete shimmers in the afterglow of an evening rain. Buses rumble by. A firetruck wails off to a catastrophe. McCaskill recites:
"Alley flies prance, dance a catch-me-if-you-can dance on top of hot garbage cans A homeless man stands and mans his world stuffed into a cart Concrete jungle dove coos for the crumbs I toss down by my shoes And the radio station at Roberto's plays the Taco Shop Blues."
Forget coffeehouses tonight. Forget universities. Forget bookstores. This cheerful and raffish band of scribes from San Diego and Tijuana want to bring the poetry to the people and the people to the poetry. They have selected what they consider a bulwark of authentic, unmediated, unchoreographed Latino culture in action: the taco shop.
"The idea started because it got boring to read to the same people all the time," Said Adolfo Guzman, a music curator at the city's Latino cultural center who organized the readings at four eateries. "What we decided to do is take it to different sites, to combine two different spaces: the taco shop space and the spoken word space....to see what happens when they intersect. The people who go to buy food, they kind of trip out and they stick around. And the people who go to listen to the poetry, they also eat."
The performers represent a range of ages, ethnicities and styles, although Chicano and Mexican themes predominate. There is sly, rapid-fire subversion of both border languages ("frijolier-than-thou" is one example from poet Victor Payan) and plenty of political denunciations aimed at Washington and Mexico City.
"La migra dispar y la poesia murio (the Border Patrol fired and poetry died)," declaims shaggy-haired Elias Ramirez. In a growling barrio lament melding Spanish and English, he recounts the death of a friend in a confrontation with law enforcement. "He made a suspicious movement--and I feared for my life!"
After limping away from the microphone, Ramirez describes himself as an 11-year survivor of the neighborhood known as Golden Hill. That name lingers wistfully, decades after the elegant old homes on the heights overlooking downtown San Diego lost their cachet.
"This place is what I write about," Ramirez says, referring to the neighborhood.
It is an edgy place where inner-city and gentrification collide. Where an Asian American man, perhaps 5 feet tall, with baggy, shorts, short silver hair and feverish eyes, emerges out of the night. He drifts among the earnest, stylish young men and women leaning on cars and sitting cross-legged on the pavement. He applauds uncertainly, goes inside and starts hitting on patrons for spare change.
"Lot of money out there," a youth tells him in accented English, gesturing at the crowd.
Shaking his head repeatedly as if banishing a thought, the little man mutters: "What's the meeting about? Political protest? Jesus? What they talking about?"
Meanwhile, Manuel Mancillas--literary alias Zopilote (Vulture)--is talking in Spanish about the recent Mexican presidential elections. He assails the tyranny of Mexico's ruling party. He crescendos to a satiric final image of the party as God, of virgins bathed in waters that are "crystalline and transparent like glasses of Jacobo" (a renowned television anchorman despised by government critics), which reflect the future: "social peace, McDonald's, the Hanks (an allegedly corrupt political clan) and Citibank!"
Sophisticated stuff for 25th and Broadway. But that's the point, says Adrian Arancibia, 23. he recently earned a degree in Spanish literature from UC San Diego, where his mentor was poet Quincy Troupe. Arancibia's work features an ode to his native Chula Vista and a reflection on the fall of O.J. Simpson. His personal canon includes Pablo Neruda of Arancibia's native Chile, a group of Puerto Rican writers from New York, and the hip-hop culture that he says is creating his kind of urgent and gritty literature.
"It's a real force," he says. "It used to be that hip-hop imitated poetry. Now poetry's imitating hip-hop."
Arancibia hopes the taco shop series will "take it to the masses." Previous readings attracted quite a few passersby, he says. At one event a crack addict grabbed the microphone and delivered a diatribe on race. "He was really seriously into it."
But the most enthusiastic response occurred in Tijuana at the enormously popular Tacos El Gordo; taquerias in the Mexican border city tend to draw a more socio-economically diverse clientele.
Unfortunately, tonight at Roberto's many of the regulars--laborers in work boots, families, husky youths in cholo attire--seem uninterested, surprised, even intimidated by the crowd of almost 100 congregated at the entrance. Few stick around for the show.
The amplified verses and musical accompaniment provoke downright hostility from one of the two young women lounging inside. Her black hair is swept up on her head; she wears maroon lipstick and dusky eye shadow; she is lean skittish and graceful in a black halter top.
"I'm gonna kick all of them out her," she snaps in Spanish at the manager, who turns away quickly. "She doesn't like poetry," says her friend, who has blond-streaked hair. She has been peering intently through the glass.
"I think that lady used to be my teacher," she murmurs. "The one sitting down in the black jacket? I think she was my teacher in middle school. A long time ago."
The mystery remains unsolved. Minutes later the woman in black stalks away through the lot, trailed by her friend.
Too bad, because they could have been living inspiration for one for the night's final offerings: "Taco Shop Love." Author John Partida, an admittedly nervous 15- year-old wins over the audience with his adolescent wooing of a red-headed temptress amid shouting countermen:
"('Number 14!') 'I say, 'What's your name?' She says 'Jean.' I said, 'My name's John.' She asked me, 'Are you strong John?' I say, 'No.' I say, 'Would you like to got to a show with me?' She says, 'Si.'"
At about 10:30, just as things are winding down, the San Diego police show up.
The black-and-white cruiser has nosed through the parking lot earlier, perhaps trying to figure out what is going on. But this time the squad stops. Two muscular officers climb out, looking stern; official tolerance for loud literary loitering appears to have run out.
The potential clash is averted, however. At that moment, master of ceremonies Guzman is thanking the listeners and bidding them good night.
The police officers look at each other and get back in their car. The visitors disperse gradually. The parking lot empties.
But at the taco shop, the people keep coming and going. Because Roberto's at 25th and Broadway, the newly anointed cultural crossroads of the transborder metropolis, never closes. And the poetry never stops.