- Reporters Desk
By Melina Paris, Music Columnist
The Blue Whale in Chinatown never ceases to host great musicians and great music while providing a perfect listening room for fans of multiple varieties of jazz.
October brought the extraordinary jazz pianist, arranger and educator,Otmaro Ruiz, with his band Lado B. Ruiz is known as a master of many different styles of jazz piano and synthesizer and is one of the most sought after keyboardists for recording. A force in jazz circles, he has been touring with Los Angeles-based groups and leading his own projects.
Playing brilliantly, this sextet wholly captured the room’s attention with their interpretations of beautiful Brazilian standards.With Otmaro on piano, Catina DeLuna on vocals, Jeff Koonse on guitar, Eldon Livingston on bass, Aaron Serfaty on drums and Clarice Cast on percussion. Lado B accomplished no less than a work of art on stage. Lado B is a quintessential jazz band. With their refined musical talent they perform impeccably. Combining that with the honest pure emotion that Brazilian music so often evokes results in an awesome mixture of heartfelt music that appeals to and stimulates the intellect.
Originally from Venezuela, Ruiz came to Los Angeles in 1989, earning his master’s degree in jazz performance at California Institute of the Arts. During this time, he played with percussionist Alex Acuña and later recorded with Arturo Sandoval. He has worked with a roster of diverse musicians from Jon Anderson, former lead vocalist of progressive rock band, Yes, Robbie Robertson, of The Band, bandleader, trumpeter, philanthropist and artist Herb Alpert and pioneering giants John McLaughlin (guitar) and Ryuichi Sakamoto (keyboards).
Ruiz is an adjunct instructor of jazz piano at the University of Southern California and Shepherd University School of Music and is also frequently a guest clinician at Musicians Institute.
Opening with a Brazilian composition by Chico Pinheiro titled “Flashes,” Lado B soothed the room straight away with the melodic Brazilian style that is infectious. With a quiet and paced start, this number immediately carries you away. Koonse plays guitar exquisitely. Sitting on his stool curved over his instrument as if joined with it, each note clearly, lucidly flows from his fingers playing the most magnetizing melodic harmonies. Drums and bass were both soft and eloquent when Ruiz’s piano comes in leading all into a beautiful crescendo.
Ruiz is amazing to watch and this room provides that opportunity better than most with its setting. Ottomans were set up directly in front of the stage at eye level with the performers close enough almost to reach out and touch them. The audience experienced the music as an integrated part of it. Ruiz’s hands dancing so skillfully across the keys and finishing touches at the end of chords and different expressions other keyboardists use to make emphasis, Ruiz carries out effortlessly. His fingers indeed look and move like water flowing across the keyboard. His playing is technically perfect, while remaining highly artistic.
Next was a samba by Joyce and Léa Freire, called “Vatapa.”
Leading in to this number, gifted vocalist Catina DeLuna informed the audience of something we had just witnessed. Saying she is surrounded by monsters on this stage, the room chuckled, applauding in agreement. With guitar and velvety vocals to start, Ruiz soon came in playing so swiftly his hands were moving like little birds. Moving across the keyboard in perfect time, with one skilled hand Ruiz can engender the sound of two.
A most mesmerizing version of “Waters of March” by Antonio Carlos Jobim followed. Lado B performed this number with masterful harmonies. Ruiz played piano dexterously with a surprising speed and force not typically heard in this serene number. The inspiration for “Aguas de Marco” (Waters of March) comes from Rio de Janeiro’s rainiest month. Ruiz played his piano like the water torrent flowing down caused by the rains.The sound of the entire arrangement was amazing, culminating to a soft samba close with drums and percussion only.
With their next song, “Cavalo Marinho” (Seahorse) they played a style of music from Northern Brazil called baiao. Starting with all soft percussion, DeLuna starts softly beating her chest with her hands; standing close to the mic, she starts making more percussive sounds with her mouth and leads into this stirring number.
They shared next what Ruiz called a dark arrangement of a Jobim tune called “Double Rainbow.” This was indeed a haunting rendition. Koonse’s guitar is rich like a harp; Livingston’s bass resonates through the room quietly with soft vibrations. They skillfully took a luxuriantly light composition about the arrival of spring and concentrated it into something very profound and multilayered. One could not help but to utterly feel this number on a deep level.
Lado B actually means “Side B,” for the side b of a record, where you often find a lot of great songs, to your surprise, as DeLuna said. In the spirit of surprise she added that the band likes to bring new Brazilian styles of music to their shows, — even for Brazilians.
Many times this evening DeLuna and Koonse were in perfect harmony with voice and guitar in such unity that they sounded as one. It was an amazing delight to witness. Leading into Jobim’s signature classic “Girl From Ipanema,” once again they captured that harmony. Serfaty was impeccable on drums and Ruiz came in with a straight ahead groove on piano. Lado B was in perfect form.
For one last treat toward the end of the show percussionist, Clarise Cast came forward to perform a brief solo with her tambourine. DeLuna sang along with her, she played an old samba called “So Pra Chatear.” Striking it like a drum that tambourine sounded as strong and had just as big a sound as a drum would. At one point she was playing so fast her instrument sounded like a snake’s rattle.
This was a wonderful night, experiencing Lado B performing up close while they conversed congenially with their audience. It was something similar to beholding superb musicianship right in your own living room. As DeLuna said, there are often surprises with side B, Lado B are monstrous musicians of the most humble kind indeed.