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October 08, 2003
Group brings diverse, creative sound to Athens
By Susan Green

It's a sultry summer evening and six guys playing saxophone, marimba, piano, electric bass, drums and congas are filling the air with infectious rhythms of Afro-Cuban jazz. It's easy to imagine you're in Havana. But you aren't. You're in Athens.

And the band, Los Viejos Blanquitos, is from Athens, too.

Los Viejos Blanquitos

Ernie Bastin - Congas, flugelhorn and percussion, has spent the greater part of his career as a trumpeter. He has performed with Dick Schory's Percussion Pops, The Les and Harry Elgart Orchestra, The Xavier Cugat Orchestra, Nancy Wilson, Tennessee Ernie Ford and Bob Hope. Bastin's recording credits include "Computer Music," "Modern Instrumental Music" and "The Music of Herbert Brun."

Roger Braun - Marimba and percussion, has shared the stage with Kathleen Battle, Keiko Abe, Lyle Mays, Billy Taylor and Ghanaian master xylophonist Bernard Woma. As a percussionist her performed with the Broadway touring productions of "Beauty and the Beast," "Titanic" and "Ragtime." Braun is a founding member of Biakuye, an African music and dance ensemble, a member of the New World Percussion Duo and a member of Keiko Abe's percussion quintet, Galaxy.

Andre Gribou - Piano, is also a composer. His theme music for the WCBS-TV NFL Today Preview received an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Musical Composition and he composed the score for the Emmy Award-winning documentary, "Wandering Souls: Tet '68." He and choreographer/dancer Mark Haim have received worldwide recognition for their solo dance piece set to "The Goldberg Variations." Gribou has been invited by the Lincoln Center Institute to present solo piano programs for the 2003-04 season.

Matt James - Saxophones, has performed as lead alto with the North Texas One O'clock Jazz Lab Band, The Glenn Miller Orchestra and The Phil Collins Big Band. He has shared the stage with Mel Torme, The Temptations, Rosemary Clooney, Jim Nabors and the Four Freshman. James' recording credits include Barry Manilow's "Singin With The Big Bands" and Phil Collins' "A Hot Night in Paris."

Dave Messina - Electric bass, is active in the world of symphonic music. He is a member of the West Virginia Symphony Orchestra, principal bassist with the Ohio Valley Symphony and has performed with the Columbus and Dayton symphony orchestras. Messina has performed with George Benson, the Moody Blues, Ray Charles and Manhattan Transfer.

Guy Remonko - Drum set and percussion, is an artist/clinician for Yamaha Drums and Avedis Zildjian Company. He has performed with Dave Samuels, Gene Burtoncini, Pearl Bailey, Ted Piltzecker, Bucky Pizzarelli and Frank Vignola. For the past 20 years, Remonko has been on the faculty of the nationally recognized Summer Drumset Workshop.

Inspired by their devotion to jazz, Ernie Bastin and Guy Remonko - retired School of Music faculty - decided to form a group so they could play the music they loved. Bastin was learning to play congas and wanted to play them with a group. Remonko wanted to play Latin jazz.

As word spread around the school, the band naturally fell together to include, Matt James, saxophone; Roger Braun, marimba and percussion; Andre Gribou, pianist and composer from the School of Dance; Dave Messina, electric bass; Bastin on congas, flugelhorn and percussion; and Remonko on drum set.

The chemistry was instant. And more than three years later, they still respect and support each other.

Afro-Cuban jazz, also known as Latin jazz, is a fusion of American jazz and the African-influenced music of the Caribbean. The resulting blend is highly charged and interactive music, retaining the dance-like rhythms of Cuba and the improvisatory approach of jazz.

"Being able to improvise over the Latin rhythms is what makes the music distinctive," says Bastin. "And improvisation is what makes the music personal."

The soul of improvisation is much like a conversation or a story. It relates to what you've just heard, Remonko adds.

James agrees with Bastin and Remonko, "It's a good release for everyone because you get to do your own thing." He says saxophone is a wonderful instrument for improvisation, "harmony repeats itself in improvisation. The rhythm section lays it down, improvisation follows and then the rhythm section drives it forward."

A mutual love and respect for Latin jazz artists Tito Puente and Michel Camillo as well as jazz greats Miles Davis and John Coltrane influence the Los Viejos Blanquitos' style. But according to James, it's Braun and his marimba that give the group their trademark sound.

African in origin, the marimba has wooden keys, unlike the metal keys on the vibes used in traditional jazz. And it's the wooden keys that give marimba its distinctive sound.

The group has given Braun, a classically trained musician who has also taught jazz and improvisation and played percussion professionally, an opportunity to expand the marimba sound beyond classical music. "This is the first time I'm playing the marimba in a jazz context professionally," he says. "And I love it."

"Roger also is a wonderful hand drummer," Bastin says. "He's very good on the djembe (African drum)."

For Remonko, a long-time professional jazz drummer, this is the realization of his dream to play Latin Jazz. "I have a deep interest in Afro-Cuban music and always wanted to play in a Latin band. As you can imagine, there aren't many opportunities to play Latin Jazz in Athens," he says.

The Grammy-winning Buena Vista Social Club is credited reawakening America's love affair with Latin music. This renewed interest brought attention to Afro-Cuban jazz, which had been further developed by Puerto Rican musicians in this country after the Cuban embargo. Once you hear the music, it's easy to understand its popularity.

"This type of jazz is more accessible," says Remonko. "It's not as complex harmonically and not as difficult to understand as traditional jazz." People respond to the rhythm. It's easily felt. It's contagious. You can't help but tap your feet. And, as Remonko notes, "rhythm is all around us, it's in us."

Band members are quick to point out that the band is a professional group, not a collection of School of Music faculty casually getting together to play jazz. Los Viejos Blanquitos play a variety of regional venues ranging from clubs and festivals. Past performances include The Front Room, Casa Cantina and The Pomeroy Blues Festival.

This summer they performed in the Lancaster Festival and Ohio University's Under the Elms music series. The band will be in concert at Liberty College in West Virginia, April 14, 2004, as part of their 2003-2004 Artist Series.

Unanimously considered the leader of the group, Bastin books most of the gigs and manages the band's public relations and marketing.

Although their repertoire pays tribute to the music of Latin jazz greats, the Los Viejos Blanquitos has performed original compositions by Gribou and arrangements by Bastin, James and Braun.

"This group is the most fun thing we've ever done," Braun says. "It makes Athens a great place to be."

Not bad for a group of "little old white guys."

Susan Green is a writer for University Communications and Marketing


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