Live Music Is Back at SOPAC! — Jazz Greats Channel Dizzy Gillespie as They Return to the Stage

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March 6, 2020 was the last time I sat indoors to witness a concert before the world shut down. Just days before, I had written a preview article about the upcoming performance of the Smithereens, the Jersey icons who played to a packed house at South Orange Performing Arts Center. I watched the band rip through their classics that night with Marshall Crenshaw singing vocals in place of the deceased – and sorely missed — Pat DiNizio. As much as I enjoyed that evening, I struggled with a sinking feeling that this may be the last live performance I’d see for a very long time. The coronavirus was here. And it wasn’t going anywhere.

About five thousand miles away and just a few days before the Smithereens hit the SOPAC stage, the Dizzy Gillespie Afro-Latin Experience was holding court at Cemal Resit Rey Concert Hall in Istanbul, Turkey. As they wrapped up their performance with the Dizzy Gillespie classic “Night in Tunisia,” the ensemble had no idea that it’d be almost sixteen months before they played again in front of a live audience.

The Dizzy Gillespie Afro-Latin Experience

The Dizzy Gillespie Afro-Latin Experience perform at SOPAC on June 19, 2021. (Photo by Donny Levit)

On June 19, 2021, the band was silent no longer. Along with multi-Grammy winner Paquito D’Rivera, the Dizzy Gillespie Afro-Latin Experience took the stage at SOPAC and reminded the audience how desperately they longed for live music. The world-class group of musicians played with such joy and aplomb that it’s hard to imagine that they ever stopped.

My wife Nicole and I – who are avid concertgoers – took our seats just a few rows away from where we sat for the Smithereens show. Throughout the pandemic, I’ve written about the immense challenges that SOPAC endured to survive in order to welcome back their audience. The pain experienced by arts organizations throughout the world has been almost too much to bear. But just a few shows back into SOPAC’s live performance schedule, it felt particularly comfortable – even “normal” – to sit down in this space once again.

Dizzy Gillespie Afro-Cuban Experience

Dizzy Gillespie bassist and 2019 Grammy winner John Lee. (Photo courtesy of Dizzy Gillespie Afro-Cuban Experience)

Led by bassist, 2019 Grammy winner, and South Orange resident John Lee, the Afro Latin Experience boasts a repertoire of Gillespie’s oeuvre of Cu-Bop, Latin-American music from an expanse of countries, and beloved songs that influenced and inspired John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie, the trumpeter, composer, bandleader, and progenitor of the bebop jazz movement.

The show began with “Long Lost Summer,” composed and arranged by the Argentine pianist and composer Lalo Schifrin. Schifrin would later go on to score both TV and film, including the “Theme from Mission: Impossible.” Highlights included potent solos by Sharel Cassity on saxophone and Freddie Hendrix on trumpet, weaving their exemplary brass around the rhythms of drummer Tommy Campbell and master percussionist Roger Squitero.

Cassity would later trade her saxophone for a flute while Hendrix did double duty with trumpet and flugelhorn throughout the evening. The two are consummate musicians with highly successful jazz credentials outside of this ensemble.

The Dizzy Gillespie Afro-Latin Experience

[L-R] Sharel Cassity, John Lee, Freddie Hendrix, Paquito D’Rivera, and Roger Squitero (Photo by Donny Levit)

Clarinetist and saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera blends both jazz and classical sounds in his work. On his composition called “I Remember Diz,” D’Rivera’s frisky and elegant solo jumped back and forth between Gillespie’s beloved “Salt Peanuts” as well as Mozart’s “Turkish March.”

The accomplished Brazilian pianist and singer Abelita Mateus added her gorgeous vocals to “Bala Com Bala,” a composition by João Bosco and Aldir Blanc. Her fingers danced across the piano with a frenetic swirl.

John Lee’s arrangement of “Black Orpheus” was a particular standout. Originally composed by Luis Bonfá for the Brazilian film of the same name, Lee’s eloquent and gentle bass solo highlighted his musicianship as he cradled his exquisite Rob Allen fretless bass.

Veteran drummer Tommy Campbell brings not only a guiding hand to the playful and complicated rhythms of the band’s repertoire, he is also responsible for one of the most beguiling and – yes – comedic moments of the evening. During Gillespie’s composition “Fiesta Mojo,” Campbell enlisted the help of multiple toy pigs that he squeezed and squashed to create an outlandish drum solo packed with squeals and “oinks” that bring the song to an absolute frenzy – emphasizing both his showmanship and technical magic.

The Dizzy Gillespie Afro-Latin Experience

[L-R] Sharel Cassity, John Lee, Freddie Hendrix (Photo by Donny Levit)

Once again arranged by Lee, the band mixed in their bossa nova to “Blue in Green,” a track off Miles Davis’ iconic album, “Kind of Blue.”

The show culminated with an exhilarating take on Dizzy’s masterpiece, “A Night in Tunisia.” Saxophonists Andrés Boiarsky and Steve Carrington joined the band in addition to WBGO radio show host Bobby Sanabria, who added percussion to Squitero’s exemplary work.

The band would later encore with “Caravan,” a composition by Duke Ellington and Juan Tizol which was beloved by Gillespie.

“We were a little rusty,” Lee told the audience. “It’s been a long time since we’ve been on the road. But you helped us.”

The evening took me back to my years in New Orleans, when discovering music was as easy as stumbling upon a jazz club late at night to witness some of the greatest players on the planet creating their magic.

Live performance is back. Music is back. The Dizzy Gillespie Afro-Latin Experience is back. SOPAC is back. And we must never take any of it for granted again.

Visit the SOPAC website for ticketing and a calendar of events.

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