The aisles of the Hollywood Bowl filled with dancing couples in the throws of Mambo on Saturday night as Paquito D’Rivera stepped in to lead the late, legendary Cuban bassist Israel “Cachao” Lopez’s Mambo All-Stars in an all too brief suite of songs that had hips swaying– whether you were in the aisles or in your seat.
The rest of the program, a sharply chosen selection of “Cuban classics” (according to the program) performed by the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, under the direction of the somewhat smarmy, good natured Thomas Wilkins, was capable counterpoint, if stodgy by comparison to the musical fireworks it book-ended.
George Gershwin’s Cuban Overture set the tone, with Wilkins’ prefacing tale of the young composer’s trip to Cuba in the 1930s that introduced him to the distinctive Carribean rhythms he would assimilate into his compositions upon his return to NYC.
But it was the late Cachao’s legacy as the father of Mambo and his descargas — improvised jam sessions that he invented and of which he was the undisputed master until his death this March at the age of 89– that set the night on fire, led by nine-time Grammy winner D’Rivera’s virtuoso performance on saxophones and clarinet.
I was among the thousands who gasped as he tore through a series of scorching solos that had a sea of heads shaking in disbelief.
Toward the end of the Mambo All-Stars’ set, the stage mirrored the aisles as Liz Lira, the classically trained reigning queen of salsa and tango, led a group of dancers in dazzling salsa performance that matched D’Rivera and company with breathlessly gyrating pyrotechnics. She spun like a spangled top, matching the Mambo All-Stars in bravura execution that looked as effortless as it was awe-inspiring.
Yeah, yeah; I know: Next week Radiohead will be dishing out a euphoric vibe of another sort, and in September, the shimmering, baggaged voice of Cat Power, stupefyingly relegated to third billing under Nick Cave and Spiritualized, will be sending chills as only she can; but last Saturday belonged to Chacao, D’Rivera and Lira.