It's easy enough to imagine what a cultural melting pot might look like, but how might it sound? Trombonist Papo Vazquez provides an attractive answer, presenting traditional Puerto Rican music through the lens of progressive jazz. His shows are funky, impassioned and ideal for dancing, so you're likely to see fancy footwork at his Nov. 14 performance at UW Music Hall. This Isthmus Jazz Series event is part of the artist's three-day visit to Madison.
Wisconsin Union Theater jazz coordinator Jordan Foster, who helped plan the show, says Vazquez is compelling because "his music encompasses both the Afro and Latin sides of jazz."
Vazquez found the Latin side of his sound first, through salsa. He performed it as a kid in 1960s Philadelphia, where he learned to play a $5 trombone. Listening to records by John Coltrane and J.J. Johnson convinced the young musician that jazz trombone was his calling, and he moved to New York City before his 18th birthday. There he performed with Latin jazz luminary Hilton Ruiz and recorded with salsa star Eddie Palmieri. Later came a gig with Dizzy Gillespie and a world tour with Ray Charles.
Most of these milestones happened early on, but Vazquez's drive to learn and innovate kept him going. During a trip to Puerto Rico, he immersed himself in bomba, which blends elements of African and Spanish music. When bomba is performed, a dancer initiates a series of movements, challenging a drummer to produce a synchronized beat. The result is feisty and dramatic, and mixes well with salsa and jazz.
Vazquez isn't just a performer, though. He's a teacher as well.
Ralph Russo, another organizer of the concert, says Vazquez's enthusiasm for teaching made him an ideal choice for the Isthmus Jazz Series. In addition to performing at Music Hall, Vazquez will give an educational presentation at Centro Hispano on Nov. 13.
His composing career has also taken off in recent years. A recording of Papo Vazquez Mighty Pirates: Marooned/Aislado, a bomba-inspired work commissioned for a 19-piece ensemble, earned a Grammy nomination in 2008 and led to the formation of his six-piece touring band. Known as the Mighty Pirate Troubadours, they're sure to take ears captive at the show.