Jazz: The oldest swinger in town - and we mean the oldest

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Indy Lifestyle Online
The Cuban wave rolls on. Last week it engulfed the Royal Festival Hall, which resembled more than ever the Carlos Marx Theatre in Havana - though the illusion was punctured somewhat by the distribution of the Kent-based Salsa World Newsletter, with tips on achieving a "free Latin pelvis" via Body Mind Centring courses.

Topping the bill was the 14-piece band Cubanismo, buoyed by a sell-out American tour and the international success of their second album. Cubanismo represent a personal triumph for a fortysomething trumpeter named Jesus Alemany, who four years ago threw in a steady job as founder member of the neo-traditional band Sierra Maestra and moved to London.

There he set up this loosely constituted formation, armed with modest UK record-company funds. Modest British funds lose their modesty in Cuba, however, stuffed as it is with top-flight, state-trained musicians hungry to reintegrate the greater Latin world. Thus the Festival Hall stage was graced by men of the quality of Tata Guines, grinning from ear to ear, as well you might if you were regularly described as perhaps the world's top conga player, and Luis Alemany, Jesus's uncle, blowing second trumpet with a craftsmanlike position born of years with the brass section of the great orchestra of Havana's Tropicana cabaret.

Combining descarga-style jazz solos with a base of Cuba's rich variety of dance rhythms is Cubanismo's thing, and naturally the leader's piercing trumpet gets first call on solos. The whole outfit - four-man brass section, six percussion, excellent tres player and two soulful singers - is top- notch though, and the RFH was jumping from the first bar, with the band consequently in bravura mode and maximum volume instantly. This did mean that the downside of the music - a combination of blustering virtuosity of style with inner frothiness of content - was occasionally to be felt.

As luck or good programming would have it, the perfect complement - music whose charm and simplicity masks inner depth and elegance - preceded Cubanismo in the form of the London debut of Compay Segundo and his Muchachos. Segundo, 90 in November, a cigar-maker by profession and exponent of the old Eastern Cuban guitar-based "son" style, achieved his greatest fame in the Forties and Fifties as a member of the duo Los Compadres, and composer of lilting evergreen love songs such as "Lula" and "Macusa". Segundo's re-emergence from retirement demonstrates why his work features in the canon of modern salsa masters such as the New York singer Henry Fiol.

Segundo's product is unvarying, unimprovable and jewel-like: simple two- or three-verse songs with beautiful melodies, harmonised exquisitely between the old man's baritone and the young tenor lead singer, and set for mellow double- bass, rhythm guitar, gently hissing maracas and the secret ingredient, the restless, ringing metal-voiced ornamentation of Segundo's own self-invented armonico, or seven-string guitar.

The Muchachos are no spring chickens themselves (singer Luis Mosquera excluded), and Segundo, attired in a Prince of Wales check jacket, is a little stiff and a touch deaf. He exudes grace and fun, though, even attempting a little pelvic Body Mind Centring, or simulated geriatric sex to you and me, on his armonico. One could imagine for him a spell of late-in-life stardom, rather as the equally characterful Cape Verdean lady of a certain age, Cesaria Evora, has achieved. The Cuban economy could be back on its feet sooner than expected.

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