• Mitchell Long Music •

Rique Pantoja and friends review by Michael Heilpern - by Michael Heilpern


The Company You Keep: Rique Pantoja and Friends at Vitello's (Aug 21, 2011)

One of the great things about the jazz world is that you can often predict an outstanding musical experience even when you know nothing about the headliner, provided you recognize the people with whom he'll be sharing the stage. It's like guilt by association -- in a good way. Such was the case last night when we went to see Brazilian pianist-composer Rique Pantoja at Vitello's.

I have never been to Brazil and know only a handful of words in Portuguese, but the music of that place long ago captured my heart. The African rhythms and French impressionist harmonies so artfully combined in Brazilian jazz seem to lift my spirit and soothe my inner loneliness like nothing else. So whenever I see a listing for musical things Brazilian, I take special note.

Somehow, in my ignorance, I had never heard of Rique Pantoja (pronounced "pan-tó-zha.") But when, following his name on the LAjazz.com calendar, I saw Ernie Watts and Abraham Laboriel Sr., well, how bad could that be? And when I found out that he was from Brazil, then I knew I had to round up some friends to make the trek with us from sleepy Claremont to that vintage Italian restaurant in Studio City.

It was well worth the drive. On stage, along with professors Watts and Laboriel were Afro-Cuban drum master Alex Acuña and versatile guitarist Mitchell Long. If you haven't heard Mitchell Long, he is an American jazz guitarist and singer who has somehow spliced his musical DNA with the stuff of João Bosco and Oscar Castro-Neves to produce a rare and surprising result: He plays like a true Brazilian. Go see him!

What can I say about pianist Rique Pantoja? He is a very sweet and humble presence on stage. His melodies are so lyrical and organic that I was inclined to take them for granted, like the under-appreciated virtues of a beautiful friend you have known for many years. Seduced into a dreamlike state by the apparent simplicity of his opening lines, I was surprised to find just moments later that we were flying in the musical stratosphere in a realm of great rhythmic and harmonic intensity. This ability to effortlessly take us from sweet and gentle to wild and intense (and back again), which he demonstrated repeatedly last night, seems to be an aspect of his particular musical genius.

In the course of his first set, Rique Pantoja revealed that his musical relationship with the redoubtable Ernie Watts goes back many years. He named one of his compositions, "1,000 Watts," after his friend, and one could feel the depth of that relationship when they were together on stage. He joked that to adequately represent Ernie's talents and energy, he probably should have added several zeros to the song title!

Ernie Watts is one of those players who I will go to see -- no questions asked. Despite possessing one of the most recognizable sounds on the saxophone, in all the times I have seen him perform, it has never felt to me that he has taken a solo opportunity for granted. He seems to approach each instant with great humility, as if the departed saints of the jazz saxophone were hovering above him urging him to reach higher.

Meanwhile, Alex Acuña and Abe Laboriel seemed to be having the time of their lives. I had seen Acuña many times anchoring the percussion section of Afro-Cuban jazz bands, but he was equally masterful laying down a supple and richly layered samba beat. For his part, Abraham Laboriel seemed to be having about as much fun as a person can while keeping his clothes on. His ebullient appreciation of the music was infectious. His instrumental mastery and the caliber of his musical associates allowed him to indulge his playful nature, alternately using his instrument to great melodic, harmonic and percussive effect.

The band concluded their set with Ernie's well-known composition, "Reaching Up," which seemed to me an excellent summation of the evening's experience. Thanks to April Williams and her team for providing a warm and accommodating environment for enjoying the best in live jazz.

Michael Heilpern