Latin jazz, live music will get Aspen sizzlin’ |

Latin jazz, live music will get Aspen sizzlin’

Stewart Oksenhorn
New England combo Insight Latin Jazz performs in a Jazz Aspen Winter Jazz concert at Harris Hall, opening for Poncho Sanchez. Aspen Times photo/Stewart Oksenhorn.

Insight Latin Jazz was included among the student groups last summer in Jazz Aspen’s educational program, JAS Academy Summer Sessions. The “student band” label seemed to fit; the players in Insight were young men in their early 20s, still pursuing degrees and careers and thrilled to be studying with established jazzmen like trombonist Wycliffe Gordon, pianist Benny Green and bassist Christian McBride, the program’s music director.”The instructors were the best you can find,” said Insight pianist Zaccai Curtis, sounding much like the 23-year-old student he is (at Boston’s New England Conservatory of Music).Looked at another way, however, Insight is a veteran act. Four of the seven members – Curtis and his brother, bassist Luques, along with drummer Richie Barshay and trumpeter Joel Gonzalez – have been playing together for a decade or more. The core group has made two trips to Cuba, one as Insight, the other as a predecessor band, Latin Flavor. Around their native Hartford, Conn., the members of Insight have been playing community functions and concerts since the mid-’90s.

For a genuine student band, go back 10 years. Curtis’ father, a lover of all kinds of music, especially jazz and R & B, was determined to get his sons involved musically. Zaccai had been taking lessons in classical piano since the age of 5, but his father wanted him to explore something more practical, and something he himself could be involved with.”My dad either got interested in playing with us, or wanted us to get interested in playing in a band,” said Curtis by phone from Boston.Latin jazz was a logical avenue. The mother of the Curtis family was from Puerto Rico. And the Hartford Conservatory had a teacher, Joe Valez, putting together a Latin ensemble for children. After a few years, Valez moved away, but the idea of a community Latin jazz group for young musicians was not about to fade away.”We looked for kids who wanted to play, and we’d bring them over to our house,” said Curtis, who had begun playing in the Latin group at the age of 14 and at the same time he entered the Greater Hartford Performing Arts Academy. The project was not just about making music, but about father-son bonding too. Joel Gonzalez’s father and Curtis’ father were deeply involved with rehearsals and setting up performances. “It was kind of a parent thing. They formed a band we could do,” said Curtis. But the kids hardly needed to be pushed. “It was incredible, a great learning experience. And it was great because the kids were all learning at the same time.”

While they were learning their chops, the young musicians also explored the history of Latin jazz. Curtis became familiar with Tito Puente, Cal Tjader, Jerry Gonzalez and pianist Eddie Palmieri, one of the instructors at last year’s JAS Academy. “It was like a school, almost. We kept studying and studying different composers and musicians,” said Curtis.In 2000, following graduation from high school, Curtis solidified a combo and dubbed it Insight Latin Jazz. While Curtis, who serves as Insight’s musical director, arranger and composer, pursues his master’s degree, he brings the combo on the road for much of the summer, and gathers the members, who live in Boston, Connecticut and New York, for occasional school-year performances. On Sunday, Feb. 27, Insight plays in Jazz Aspen’s Winter Jazz series, opening for percussionist Poncho Sanchez – one of their idols – at Harris Hall.Asked if one needed Latin blood to play Latin jazz, Curtis said, “I hope not.” He noted that Insight drummer Richie Barshay is Jewish, and that saxophonist Ray McMorrin is a black American.And while Curtis has long been immersed in Latin jazz, it is not his only pursuit. He and his brother Luques perform with the Donald Harrison Quintet, led by the New Orleans saxophonist, and Curtis says he’ll “play anything, any music.” But he doesn’t envision giving up the music and the combo he grew up with.”I’d love to have this band keep going forever, as long as I can,” he said of Insight.

I’d say it feels like old times on the Aspen music beat, what with March’s flurry of activity upon us. Except I’m not sure that even the good old days, when the Double Diamond and Howling Wolf were both running at full throttle, were as good as these new days.The Belly Up is delivering on its promise, and then some, booking favorites from the Double D days, as well as acts that never made it to the predecessor venue. Despite the presence of the Belly Up, Club Chelsea and Snowmass Village’s Blue Door, both handled by former Grotto’s booker Tim Lucca, are diving deeper than ever into live music. Jazz Aspen’s Winter Jazz series has a pair of most promising concerts ahead. The Wheeler Opera House has plenty of quality shows (and even some that might cause a certain Aspen Times sports editor to cease momentarily his griping about the lack of dancing in the old house).Heading the list of distinguished acts at Belly Up is rebel rocker Steve Earle. Earle made his Aspen debut last year at the Wheeler, but that was a solo gig. (Moreover, Earle was said to be suffering severely that night from a kidney stone, a plausible explanation for his so-so performance.) This time, though, on March 31, Earle appears with his rock band the Dukes. It’s a solid bet that he’ll will make amends for his last appearance here; Earle is riding high on his first Grammy victory, winning best contemporary folk album for the politically explosive “The Revolution Starts Now.” Allison Moorer – whose sister, fellow country-rocker Shelby Lynne made her Aspen debut last summer at Jazz Aspen’s June Festival – opens.The club will be smoking on Sundays, as Belly Up has dubbed Sunday as the day of reggae. Dominican-born Coloradan Djaté plays Feb. 27, with Jamaican singer Sister Carol following on March 6.Rounding out the Belly Up schedule: New York groove trio Soulive (March 20); rockers Better Than Ezra, with Memphis pop-rock band Ingram Hill opening (March 22); Colorado Latin band Cabaret Diosa (March 25); former Ugly Americans frontman Bob Schneider (April 3); and soul-rock band Maktub (April 12).

Meanwhile, the Wheeler might shake as hard as Belly Up. Jam-blues band the North Mississippi Allstars return to the Wheeler (March 9), this time as a trio. (The band ditched singer-guitarist Duwayne Burnside since their Aspen performance last winter.) And get this: the No-Miss Allstars don’t even figure to be the loudest act on the bill. That honor falls to Rose Hill Drive, a young Colorado trio that has been earning comparisons in style and ability (no joke) to Led Zeppelin. Look for Rose Hill Drive to add a nighttime gig in Aspen that same night.Also getting the Wheeler in the groove is Karl Denson. The former Greyboy Allstars saxophonist and frontman leads his jazz-funk outfit Tiny Universe to a Wheeler show April 2. Other acts set to play the Wheeler: “1964 – The Tribute,” a re-creation of early-era Beatles (March 12-13); Malian singer-guitarist Habib Koité and his band Bamada (March 15); and blues legend Taj Mahal (March 28). And not to be forgotten is the Wheeler’s Beyond Bluegrass Festival, with supergroup Psychograss (March 16), French-accented Nova Scotia group Vishten (March 17), bluegrass hotshots Blue Highway (March 18), and roots rock band Donna the Buffalo (March 19, in order).Need more? Good, there’s more. Jazz Aspen’s Winter Jazz series follows the Poncho Sanchez show with a tribute to the late Ray Brown on March 23 at Harris Hall. Paying tribute to the legendary jazz bassist, who was an integral part of Jazz Aspen’s educational program, are singer Marlena Shaw; pianists Benny Green and Geoff Keezer; bassist John Clayton and his son, pianist Gerald Clayton; and bassist Christian McBride, artistic director of Jazz Aspen’s JAS Academy Summer Sessions.I hope I didn’t give the impression that that was it. Among the highlights at Club Chelsea are New Orleans funk-rock band Saaraba (Wednesday, March 2), and Southern rock band Tishamingo, headed by former Aspenite Cameron Williams (March 13). Over at the Blue Door, the night to keep in mind is March 17 – St. Patty’s Day, and the next appearance by Colorado groove-jazz band the Motet.Last one for now: Irish-American quartet the Prodigals, who mix Irish rhythms with American punk, also play St. Patty’s Day in Snowmass, as part of the Aspen Skiing Company’s Hi-Fi Series. One final act in the series, April 10 at Snowmass, has yet to be announced.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is

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