Mambo Number Five Horns

Castellanos led a five horn ensemble for the Tito Puente celebration

Trumpet virtuoso Gilbert Castellanos’ ongoing collaboration with the San Diego Symphony reached a glorious zenith on Thursday, July 14 with a tribute to Latin music legend Tito Puente in a performance at the Embarcadero Park for the Bayside Summer Nights series.

This sold out affair featured a large all-star ensemble with a core group of Castellanos and Doug Meeuwsen on trumpets, Dan Reagan on trombone, Justo Almario and Pablo Calogero on saxophones and flutes, musical director Irving Flores on piano, Omar Lopez on bass and the remarkable three drum tandem of Mike Holguin on timbales, Tommy Aros on congas and Latin-jazz legend Johnny “Dandy” Rodriguez.

The three drum choir provided a constant roil of activity throughout the opening number “T. P. Special,” which leaned heavily on Almario’s boppish vocabulary and a Castellanos vignette that found the trumpeter scribing wide melodic arcs interspersed with sudden fits of trills. Flores broke the time into delicious segments of block chords while Aros laid down the first in a series of crowd pleasing percussion solos.

There was a sense of almost hyper ebullience on the gorgeously layered “Flight to Jordan,” which benefitted greatly from the soloing expertise of Calogero’s flute, Almario’s tenor (he reminded me of a Latin Sonny Rollins) and the bluesy bluster of Reagan’s trombone. Castellanos and Meeuwsen held a trumpet shootout, while Flores set up an inspiring round robin of solos from Rodriguez, Holguin and Aros.

Flores stood up to clap off the horn-heavy intro to “Calzada de Cerro,” an instant crowd favorite cha-cha-cha that brought vocalists Mariela Contreras, Lorraine Castellanos and Mike Benge onto the stage to alternate between the stream of solos from Castellanos, Almario and Calogero.

“Que Sensacion,” closed out the first set with a super dense thicket of Afro Cuban grooves featuring a protean Almario novella followed by Calogero’s primal baritone saxophone excursion and a Holguin timbale spotlight that had the crowd on their feet.

The brief intermission might have been necessary to marshal the energy of the audience, who greeted the second set opening mambo “Ran Kan Kan,” with wild enthusiasm. It soon transformed into a feature for the growling exuberance of Contreras and another episodic showstopper from Holguin, who was clearly channeling the master.

The full five horn ensemble came alive on “Oriente,” which Lorraine Castellanos cut up and devoured for dinner alongside a superb trombone feature for Reagan, whose aggressive sound encapsulated the joy of the evening.

That evening came to a close with Tito Puente’s most recognized cha-cha-cha, the evergreen “Oye Como Va,” which had the crowd on their feet and dancing over a slew of virtuoso moments, beginning with Calogero’s flute, Meeuwsen’s trumpet and then extending finally to a low-toned essay from Lopez before an ecstatic climax from everyone that brought the house down.

It might just have been the “feel good” concert of the year.

 Robert Bush is a freelance jazz writer who has been exploring the San Diego improvised music scene for more than 30 years. Follow him on Twitter @robertbushjazz. Visit The World According to Rob.

Contact Us