Tropic of dancers
Don't panic: The 911 Mambo Orchestra is here to save Chicago's Caribbean music fans
Most people use their lunch breaks to read the paper and grab a bite to eat. Angel Melendez, the founder and musical director of Chicago's 911 Mambo Orchestra, used his to assemble one of the preeminent Afro-Cuban big bands in the country.
"I would call them my 'lunch rehearsals,'" he says of his midday breaks while teaching at Pilsen's Pickard Elementary.
When the 911 Mambo Orchestra and pianist Danilo Perez headline Millennium Park's Pritzker Pavilion on Thursday 28—possibly their biggest show yet—their effortless combination of mambo, salsa and big-band jazz will belie all the haphazard preparation that went into it.
After regularly packing venues like HotHouse, the orchestra's eponymous debut CD earned a 2005 Grammy nomination for Best Traditional Tropical Latin Album—a feat all the more impressive considering Chicago's lackluster track record for supporting the music of the Caribbean. During a bona fide lunch break at a River North pizza joint, Melendez insisted that reputation isn't deserved.
"All the way up until 9/11, there were clubs, there were bands performing," he says. "But after that, the clubs just started paying DJs instead of hiring bands." (Incidentally, the band was named for the day it was formed—September 11, 1992—not the terrorist attacks that took place nine years later).
Michael Orlove, program director at Chicago's Department of Cultural Affairs, helped coordinate the Pritzker show. "A lot of [Latin players] here don't pitch themselves only into playing Latin jazz," he says. "We've got guys in 911 who are bona fide leaders of their own jazz ensembles." Add in the rise of reggaeton—a sort of Latino hip-hop popular enough to dominate the local WVIX- and WVIV-FM stations—and the result is a Latino musical culture that has become increasingly DJ-oriented.
Melendez has no illusions about the difficulties involved in casting and booking the orchestra. But this isn't just because he's working in a format mainstream America left for dead 30 years ago—it's also often a matter of logistics unique to the genre. "It is difficult to tell [a venue] that there are 21 guys in the band," says Melendez. At one point, in addition to playing trombone and writing and arranging most of the music, Melendez bore the lion's share of the group's administrative responsibilities, including the daunting task of calling and setting up rehearsals with 20 busy musicians. Only recently has the success of the band allowed him to hire others to help out.
The Panamanian-born, Boston-based Perez isn't a stranger to busy schedules, either. He'll spend this summer touring as part of Wayne Shorter Quartet, leading his own trio and then returning to Chicago's Jazz Showcase in November as part of a larger tour. As Perez explains from his home on the Boston seashore, the commissioned piece will include a traditional Panamanian call-and-response within the orchestra—but instead of volleying between the orchestra and coros (Spanish for "background singers"), Perez is setting the raucous dialogue between orchestra and percussion. Danilo Perez Sr., Perez's father and a noted bolero singer in his own right, will make a rare appearance, as well. Because the younger Perez spent his childhood in Panama being groomed to accompany his father, the thought of revisiting what might have been leaves him a little giddy. "I know these arrangements, but I've never played them before, so it'll be exciting for everyone," he says.
Perez's relationship with both Chicago and the 911 Orchestra go way back. In 1999, he performed the commissioned Suite for the Americas at the Chicago Jazz Festival and, at Orlove's suggestion, sat in on a 911 show during the same trip. It was then that he first met Melendez. Since that onstage collaboration, the two musical workaholics have been as close personally as they are invested in the greater tropical scene. "I'm [still] not used to that whole man-kissing thing," says Melendez with a laugh, referring to Perez's traditional Panamanian greetings, "but we hang out like we've known each other forever."
Danilo Perez, with Angel Melendez's 911 Mambo Orchestra, plays Pritzker Pavilion Thursday 28.