I'd done my homework before arriving...
I knew that the B3PO had been formed by Mario Grillo, son of Frank "Machito" Grillo and named after Mario Bauzá, as a one-off project nearly a decade ago. With approval from the Puente and Rodríguez estates it was conceived, by what has been described by the New York Times, as a "Latin repetory orchestra" playing music derived from the original charts of the three original bandleaders of the New York mambo era: Machito, Tito Rodríguez, and Tito Puente.
Reception at its debut was overwhelming, such that the ensemble was obliged to continue.
B3PO boasted pianist Gilberto Colón Jr. and conguero Eddie Montalvo in its line-up, both having played with the original big three at some point in their careers. Four trumpets, four saxophones (alto, tenor, baritone), bass, bongó, and three vocalists surrounded a centrepiece of two glimmering sets of timbales - one for Tito Rodríguez Jr. and the other for Mario Grillo.
For the BBC's celebration, they were joined by three heavy-hitters: pianist Larry Harlow of the Fania era; trombonist and bandleader Jimmy Bosch; and the Cuban virtuoso violinist Gabriel Fonseca. Frightening stuff.
My curiosity was two-fold:
- whether both 'Juniors' could live up to the expectations that their marketing had been based on - that is, a talent for performance worthy of comparison with their uniquely gifted namesakes; and
- whether the Big Three Palladium Orchestra would live up to its billing as "The most brilliant large Latin Jazz ensemble this side of Havana" (Chicago Tribune), or be more than that and capture the vibrant essence of the mambo.
The limelight illuminated the slender frame of Machito Jr. who, as a highly charming public speaker, began in the role of Master of Ceremonies and bandleader. The B3PO concert structurally assumed the form of three contiguous sets: first was Tito Rodríguez Jr. on timbales interpreting his father's music; second, Larry Harlow playing his own salsa and Latin Jazz numbers; and finally Mario Grillo with Machito's compositions on the other set of timbales.
They opened with the infectious classic "Mama Guela", again one of their strongest numbers, before inviting Jimmy Bosch on board as a soloist for the second piece. Listening to him play throughout the sets, I was struck by his ability to adapt his improvisations to suit the mambo, Latin jazz and salsa idioms - here was a rare performer, a person who fully understood the contexts of his art.
And then there was Gabriel Fonseca. "El Conde", as he is sometimes known, chose to play in a way that leaned more on his tenure with Original de Manzanillo and Candido Fabré underpinned with his philharmonic training, than toward the route of Alfredo de la Fé. It was the perfect decision which counterpointed the Latin Jazz essence of the orchestra; think Rubén Gonzalez on strings.
Joe was up and at it again to Larry Harlow's "La Cartera", warbling "ya no tengo más dinero" and hot-stepping his salsa thing (I would be regaled to that in spontaneous bursts on the homeward leg the rest of the night). He later revealed that he used to have that song on a cassette of salsa classics; that he must have flipped it over hundreds of times in his FIAT, driving from latino party to latino party growing up in D.C.
Joe never knew the name of the song, nor the artist, until this night.
And that as a teenager then, he would never have guessed that he'd be listening it again, live, to the original performing artist (Larry Harlow's verson was on Joe's tape; "La Cartera" was originally written by Arsenio Rodríguez), sitting next to a Malaysian Latin ethnomusicologist salsa-friend. I'll take a compliment any which way it comes.
"Oye Como Va", a rightful tribute to Tito Puente, was the Big Three Palladium Orchestra's finale. For me, it only highlighted the project as an incomplete endeavour with the absence of Tito Puente Jr.
In the end, I found the presence of 'Machito Jr.' in the position of band director largely superfluous during Rodríguez's set. He made the motions of conducting the rhythmic breaks, but the brass section was already playing them; it told me that the 'cues' were illusionary. And the time when a conductor was needed, when the brass were slipping ahead of the rhythm section, it was the more accented playing and hard stare of Gilberto Colón Jr. that brought them back into line.
I think if he wanted to complete the mirage and marketing image of bearing Machito's baton, Mario would be a more convincing stage presence during the first part as a maraquero. He had a defined space during the third set at the timbales; his strokes, although more awkward looking, were cleaner than those of Tito Rodríguez Jr.
In answer to my curiosity, neither of the Juniors played in a way that approached the virtuosity of their illustrious fathers. But there is no shame in that - a century would consider itself lucky to be blessed with one, let alone three such gifts.
And yes, the Big Three Palladium Orchestra is identifiably a Latin Jazz orchestra, to be distinguished from the mambo orchestras. The difference? Exuberance. You can hear it in the mambo. Latin Jazz is more given to introversion, the biggest culprit of this was the brass section which performed in a manner, being so attached to their charts, decoupled from the rest of the band. The biggest improvement, if it wanted to go down the extroverted mambo route and engage more with its audience, is for the brass to do the really tough thing and play without music scores in front of them.
Dancing is what made the Palladium famous. A colour-blind dance floor in an age of racial discrimination. A scintillating atmosphere attracting Hollywood's brightest stars, thereby sparking social acceptance.
We owe Mario Grillo a huge debt of gratitude. For having the vision and commitment to negotiate and forge this orchestra together; for the opportunity to remember or experience anew the music of the Palladium's best-known years.
That the Spirit of 53rd and Broadway live on beyond its mortal shell.
(On to Epilogue.)
Loo Yen Yeo