“Cha-cha meets, folkloric rumba, spiked with rock guitar, psychedelic bass …and tap dancing!” That’s how New York’s Grupo Los Santos describes their latest album Santos 4(to be released 9/29/2023).
New York’s Grupo Los Santos is, by their own reckoning, an admittedly a strange band. They’ve spent the last 20 years building a dedicated fanbase around their unmistakably unique sound, with an eclectic mix of Afro-Cuban, Brazilian, Flamenco and NYC Jazz influences; creating unique, original rumba, samba, and funky acoustic/electric rock. And on Santos 4, the band delivers a jazz improv satori experience driven by the secret weapon of tap dance.
The group’s connections to both cuban music and tap go way back to the mid 1998 after drummer William “Beaver” Bausch and tap dancer/percussionist Max Pollock returned from their first trip to Cuba, eager to share the incredible musical insights as they had found in Havana with their New York compatriots. Guitarist Pete Smith, bassist Nicholas Walker, and saxophonist Paul Carlin all signed on to the experiment, which has lasted for over 20 years now, in three main configurations: Nicholas left in 2000 and was replaced by current bassist David Ambrosio, whose melodic bass lines have helped to significantly evolve the band’s sound.
Drawing from the traditional/folkloric music of the Americas, played with an open and spontaneous jazz sensibility, the band cuts a very atypical profile in New York’s Jazz and Latin Jazz scene. The band’s love and individual deep study of these musical traditions has combined with an audacious improvisational nature to bear strange and beautiful fruit, both compositionally and in performance and execution.
Grupo los Santos exemplifies this dynamic on the album’s lead single “Message in a Bottle” (set to drop in early September), a track that sees 80s pop sensibilities getting blown through the heart and soul of Cuban dance and folkloric music played by gringos in New York.
“Imagine you throw Sting, some Cuban rum, and a mickey into a blender and then you suck it down with some coconut juice,” says guitarist Pete Smith. “That’s ‘Message in a Bottle. It’s like an LSD trip flavored with Cuban rum. That’s emotionally that’s what’s happening”.
As far as originals, “Siete Pasos” is a track that can be pointed to as very indicative of the band’s operating dynamic, of how they compose together in a way that bridges the improvisational instrumental with the visual and embodied elements of Pollack’s dance.“It’s yet another angle or another facet of the essence of what we are,” says Pollack. “Combining bata and the more folkloric angles with the vocals, harmonies and tap. It’s just not really a jazz track, it’s more of a groove track, trance or something.
Grupo los Santos has worked extensively with Cuban composer/trombonist Juan Pablo Torres: They were featured in his concert of Cuban All-Stars at New York City’s Town Hall in 1999, and appeared individually on his 2001 recording Together Again, featuring Chucho Valdez, Arturo Sandoval, Steve Turre, Giovanni Hidalgo and a host of other Latin Jazz luminaries. With Max Pollak, los Santos has collaborated with members of the famed los Munequitos de Matanzas, combining jazz tap and Cuban rumba. In November, 2001, Pollak and los Santos were able to bring their mezcla (“mixture”) to its roots: playing a series of concerts in Havana, Cuba. The highlights included a show at the jazz club La Zorra y el Cuervo, and a collaboration with the 11 piece rumba group Clave y Guaguanca as part of Havana’s Cuba Tambor festival.
On film, Grupo los Santos has been featured in Como Se Forma una Rumba/How to Create a Rumba by Ivan Acosta (which was shown in Lincoln Center as part of Latin Beat 2001!), and in Latido Latino, a documentary about Latin music in New York City, broadcast nationally in Spain. And that visual aspect of Grupo los Santos is key.
Reflects Pollack, “The visual aspect of us, number one, playing bata drums, and sort of like switching the instruments around sometimes. And the aspect of me moving while we perform adds a very, very specific dimension to the identity of the band, and to the way I think we make the audience feel. Because I am constantly moving, the audience feels like they’re moving constantly, too, because there’s a very, very strong aspect of identification. I think that happens a lot with Cuban bands, because the Cuban musicians all move. Yeah, yeah. And he solves our team by band, or even the Latin jazz bands, like those cats just they can’t stop dancing. They can’t not dance. Yeah, that’s part of what defines this genre. And what defines what defines the people from those from those cultures, frankly”.