You missed it

Empty seats greet one of the hottest Latin jazz bands to ever come through Laxson

Doc Severinsen and his hot pants <i>and</i> his hot band, San Miguel 5.

Doc Severinsen and his hot pants and his hot band, San Miguel 5.

Photo By Melanie MacTavish

Doc Severinsen & the San Miguel 5
Thursday, Oct. 18, Laxson Auditorium

Laxson Auditorium
Chico State

I must begin my review of last Thursday’s awesome Doc Severinsen & the San Miguel 5 show at Laxson Auditorium by chastising the local musicians who were not there—which looked to be every single one of them (I won’t name names), except for me. Pardon me if I’ve overlooked anybody, but the modestly sized audience that was in attendance for this musically bad-ass show seemed to consist largely of silver-haired folks likely attracted by the fact that trumpet player Severinsen was a longtime fixture as bandleader on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show.

To all of you who should have been sitting in those empty seats: You missed one hell of a show!

The wonderful Severinsen aside, his band alone was worth the price of admission: fabulous Mexican classical/jazz guitar virtuoso Gil Gutiérrez, electric-violin player Charlie Bisharat, Brooklyn upright-bassist Kevin Thomas and Cuban percussionist Jimmy Branly. Bisharat, for one, has played with everyone from Burt Bacharach, Al Jarreau and Elton John, to Aerosmith, Beck, Mary J. Blige and Linkin Park, with dozens more in between, including Michael Jackson, Ronnie Milsap and Ricky Martin. His membership in defunct New Age electronic group Shadowfax earned him a Grammy.

Branly, for his part, has played with a who’s-who of musicians, from Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Chucho Valdés and Celia Cruz, to Sheila E., Gregg Bissonette and Brian Bromberg.

Severinsen—now 85 years old, but as vibrant as ever in a stunning black-with-silver-sequins Day of the Dead jacket over a bright-orange shirt and trousers—had the audience from the get-go, as he proved in short order that he can still hit the high notes and play his trumpet as beautifully as ever.

The night’s program—a mixture of Latin, Gypsy and standard jazz tunes, Gutiérrez originals and South American classical music à la Astor Piazzolla, and then some—rolled along smoothly in waves of increasing and decreasing tempos and volumes as the performers clearly had fun both taking turns soloing and performing as a tight-knit ensemble.

Gutiérrez and Severinsen even injected some snappy political humor into the evening when, after Gutiérrez spoke to the audience in Spanish, Severinsen joked, “That’s the kind of comment that makes it hard for us to get booked in Arizona!”

From their joyous, blistering rendition of Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli’s well-known “Minor Swing,” to Gutierrez’s lovely song written for his son and daughter, “Irene y Diego,” to the band’s catchy improvised take on the Juan Tizol jazz standard, “Caravan,” each member of this quintet showed mastery both in playing mind-bogglingly fast and sensitively slow. At more than one point, Severinsen handed off a lead line to Bisharat (whose electric violin at times was set up to sound very much like a trumpet) so seamlessly that it was almost impossible to tell—unless you were looking—that the switch had been made.

If it’s even possible to single out any one member of this world-class ensemble for special mention, Branly—who sat behind a traditional Western drum kit accessorized with an assortment of Latin percussion—deserves the award. Sitting atop the sassy Cuban box drum known as a cajón, Branly provided a masterful rhythmic anchor that spared no detail, from his ripping cajón licks to his delicate touches on the cymbals, both with his hands and with fuzzy mallets. At one point, late in the evening, Branly sauntered over to Gutiérrez’s side of the stage and—in a display of musical camaraderie and just plain over-the-top talent—proceeded to percuss with both hands on Gutiérrez’s guitar strings as Gutiérrez provided the chord changes with his left hand.

Go see them the next time they’re in town. Duh.