Dig This: Los Gatos swing from pure salsa to Latin jazz on their new album
Los Gatos have kept the Latin music flame burning in Ann Arbor for some 20 years, with essentially the same lineup most of the time. But there have certainly been some changes along the way.
For one, the band has outlasted two of its important homes for regular gigs, the now-defunct Bird of Paradise and the Firefly Club. It’s also undergone a shift in musical styles: Originally conceived as a purely Latin jazz ensemble, in later years the band has found itself getting deeper into salsa.
In fact, the Los Gatos recently released a new album, Guarachéate! -- its third ever, and first since 2007 -- that focuses primarily on the band’s salsa side. It’s a great snapshot of the band’s current sound and it displays their reverence for the music, their instrumental skills, and their joy in sharing what they love.
“I don’t think we could have predicted the band would last this long,” says pianist Brian DiBlassio, recently reflecting on their history.
The band was originally the brainchild of drummer/percussionist Pete Siers, a Saginaw native who stoked his love of Latin jazz with regular visits to Ann Arbor record stores. After moving to Ann Arbor, Siers assembled the right combination of players and tried some gigs at the old Del Rio bar. They realized they were on to something special, but there was a lot of work involved.
They explain that Latin jazz is “an intricate puzzle” in the way instruments interact. “Every instrument is very exposed,” Siers says.
DiBlassio adds, “Each player had to immerse themselves in the music and study it, learn how to play it. It’s not your everyday repertoire.”
As the band built its reputation, it held down regular weekly dates in local clubs, first at the Bird of Paradise and then the Firefly Club, both now long gone. Along the way, Latin dancing became more popular. At one point the band created a makeshift dance floor and started to expand its repertoire to include more authentic salsa.
“And then it came to the point where we had to start singing,” Siers says with a chuckle. Owl DiBlassio, Brian’s brother, is the lead singer (and percussionist); the other band members are Kurt Krahnke on bass and Cary Kocher on vibes.
Guarachéate! showcases the band’s abilities on a variety of Latin-themed gems. “La Malanga” kicks things off with an irresistible party atmosphere. “Al Fin Te Vi” is a midtempo instrumental standout. “Barquillero” brings the album to a joyous, danceable conclusion.
“Now we’re going deeper. Now we’re really starting to understand how salsa works,” leader Siers says of the current band. ”This is a lifetime of study, and I think we all appreciate the depth of this.”
The third track on the album, “Inquietacao,” is traditional Latin jazz, an homage to pianist/arranger Clare Fischer, a Michigan native. Recorded at the University of Michigan’s Duderstadt Center, the album takes its title from a Cuban expression meaning “check this out” or “dig this,” DiBlassio explains.
Although Los Gatos are not currently playing a regular weekly gig, one new tradition has sprung up in recent years: The band has held a closing slot every year of the Water Hill Music Fest. Their infectious sounds typically draw a huge crowd that’s not afraid of literally dancing in the streets. The weather, the atmosphere, and the spring season combine into something special, Siers notes: “When all those things are just right, the energy is just amazing.”
Bob Needham is a freelance writer and the former arts & entertainment editor of The Ann Arbor News and AnnArbor.com.