Los Gatos celebrating 15 years of great Latin jazz with Kerrytown concert
On the one hand, they enjoy playing the more cerebral, more involved forms of Latin jazz, with deeper harmonies, and more extended solos. They do those gigs, says bandleader Pete Siers, in “intense listening rooms,” like the Kerrytown Concert House, where they will perform on Friday. The group formed in August of 1998, so this gig is their 15th Anniversary show.
But they also love playing traditional, groove-happy salsa music for dancers. They do those gigs at clubs, and at festivals, like Top of the Park, and those gigs often have a salsa-dance instructor on hand who offers lessons for 30 minutes before the show.
“We love the variety of playing both,” says Siers, who plays the timbales, percussion and coro in Los Gatos.
And Los Gatos are definitely an Ann Arbor musical institution. They had a standing, weekly gig at The Firefly Club for five years until it closed in 2009, and before that, they were a regular fixture at the old Bird of Paradise for five years.For the Kerrytown show, the group will focus on the music of pianist Clare Fischer, a Grand Rapids native and jazz pioneer in the 1950s and ‘60s, when Fischer was a member of Cal Tjader's band. “We play a lot of Cal’s music, too. They were big influences on us,” says Siers.
Siers cites Mongo Santamaria, Tito Puente and Willie Bobo as other major influences. “I listened to Tito’s ‘Dance Mania’ albums over and over again. Those records really unlocked the mystery of salsa music for me, and showed us how it was all put together.”
Los Gatos is a five-piece ensemble. In addition to Siers, the group includes Cary Kocher on vibes and coro, Kurt Krahnke on bass, Brian Di Blassio on piano and coro and Al Di Blassio on congas, vocals and percussion.
“Everyone in the band can read music very well, so we can gobble up material faster, and being a five-piece makes us easier to book than groups who have 10 players up there. And everyone in the band is a drummer—we have just as much energy as a band that has horns,” says Siers.
“Our mission is to continue to play in the tradition, and to keep studying the music, and keep expanding our repertoire. We get more gigs by continuing to play for dancers, but we also really dig playing the more complex harmonies and rhythms—that takes us to another level of intensity,” says Siers, who also plays drums in other Ann Arbor ensembles, including his own Pete Siers Trio, the Easy Street Jazz Band, and The Paul Keller Orchestra.
Los Gatos has released two albums—“Cats Got Your Tongue?,” a 2001 live album recorded at the Bird of Paradise, and “Insight,” a 2008 studio disc. A new album is in the works, says Siers. “”We just sifting through the material—we have so much to choose from, from playing different styles, and we need to decide what kind of balance to strike.
“This album will feature some of our stronger originals, and will also reflect the direction the band has been going in for the last three or four years, which has been heavily influenced by the music of Joe Cuba”—a giant on the New York City Latin-music scene in the 1960s and ‘70s. “His band played small-group salsa in the 1960s that was very popular party music, and I think this record will have heavy doses of that.”
Siers is also a jazz-drumming and percussion instructor, who has taught at the University of Michigan, the Ann Arbor School for the Performing Arts, Emory University and Purdue University. These days, he mostly gives private lessons. Most of the other members of Los Gatos are also music instructors—Brian Di Blassio at the University of Michigan at Flint, Cary Kocher in the Ann Arbor Public Schools and Kurt Krahnke, who mostly gives private lessons but also sometimes teaches at universities.
In his trio, Siers plays straight-ahead jazz, and in the Easy Street Jazz Band, he plays Dixieland, and in Keller’s orchestra, he plays big-band music. So he obviously enjoys being able to shift gears from one style of jazz to another.
“I am lucky that I live in this area, so I can follow the different threads that turn me on, musically,” says Siers. “If I was in New York, I would likely get pegged as being just one kind of player, and would be fit into that slot.
“But it’s more wide-open here, and I’m fortunate enough that that there are many really great cats around here that I can call on, and who encourage each other to make it happen. There is just such a great synergy here.”
Kevin Ransom is a free-lance writer who covers music for AnnArbor.com. He can be reached at KevinRansom10@aol.com.