Miguel de Armas Septet – New Year's Eve
Options Jazz Lounge, Brookstreet Hotel
Saturday, December 31, 2016

View photos by Brett Delmage of this performance

If you were looking for a hopeful, happy way to kick 2016 out the door and look forward to 2017, you couldn't have done better than listening to the upbeat music from Miguel de Armas and his bandmates on New Year's Eve at Brookstreet.

The Miguel de Armas Septet got listeners up and dancing to celebrate the start of 2017 ©Brett Delmage, 2016
The Miguel de Armas Septet got listeners up and dancing to celebrate the start of 2017 ©Brett Delmage, 2016

The Cuban-Canadian pianist is ferociously energetic, and he surrounded himself with equally dynamic Latin musicians for this show. Most were from his Sabor de Cuba band, but he also brought in bassist Roberto Riveron – a fellow Cuban who has lived in Toronto since 2007 and has performed with Cuban bands Cubanismo and Klimax, and with Toronto jazz musicians Luis Mario Ochoa, Eddie Bullen, Jane Bunnett, and Hilario Durán.

By the time the music started at 8:25 p.m. – a few minutes early – there was a full house, with all the tables in the main part of the lounge filled. de Armas opened with a lively and flowing standard, supported by Riveron on six-string electric bass and Arien Villegas on congas. Drummer Frank Martinez joined in on the second song, and they remained a quartet for the first hour-long set.

They played tight, fast-moving Latin jazz with a strong percussive base, a large dynamic range, and much simpatico. Riveron's fluent bass and de Armas' rippling piano complemented each other: one ballad opened with just a simple piano melody underlaid by a rumbling bass line. There were also many opportunities for each of the four to step out: Riveron added vocal scatting over an extended and evocative bass solo, while Villegas created a fantasia of inventive hand percussion in one of his solos.

Warm and inviting, the music was a hit with the audience. Unlike other Saturdays at Brookstreet, this audience was listening attentively and with great interest, and applauded very strongly after several of the songs.

Just after 10 p.m., vocalist Caridad Cruz stepped onto the bandstand for an extended (almost 90-minute) second set with the band and jumped the energy to a whole other level. The group was now a septet, as she was also joined by Carlos Alberto Leyva on keyboards and guitar, and Rino Montero on percucion menor guiro, which produced a ratchet sound when a stick was scraped over its grooves and added to the strong forward momentum of the music.

Cruz has strong stage presence and the ability to project a song – regardless of genre – and could sparkle in a Latin standard, or sing with deep emotion in a slow number introduced by Riveron's evocative opening solo. On “Besame Mucho”, de Armas began with a full-bodied and ornamented piano solo which, along with Leyva's deep organ riffs, complemented Cruz's deeply dramatic singing.

Partway through, the young son of one of the musicians joined the group on the bandstand and was given his own sticks to play against the drumset, as he listened with great fascination to the flow of the rhythms.

The music mixed Afro-Cuban numbers with jazz and pop standards performed with a Cuban flair: for example, “Cantaloupe Island” (with a polyrhythmic feel), “Quizás, quizás, quizás” (“Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps”), Bob Marley's “No Woman No Cry”, and “Lullaby of Broadway”. By the third song of this set, dancers started hitting the dance floor to the high-powered Latin beat – and more got up with each number until almost everyone was on their feet.

The band started its last set a few minutes before midnight with a hard-edged, funky version of “Stand By Me”, with Riveron featured on fusion-accented bass, and Villegas and Martinez adding strong grooves under Cruz's deeply heartfelt vocals.

They stopped at midnight for everyone to hug and cheer the New Year, and then got back to the music with even more vigor. When we left shortly after midnight to catch the last bus home, we had to dodge all the dancers happily swaying to the infectiously funky beat.

It was an optimistic start to 2017, with a band which clearly showed why they are a local audience favourite. And I hope we will hear more of Riveron's inventive bass stylings up in Ottawa this year.

    – Alayne McGregor

View photos by Brett Delmage of this performance

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