Sierra Maestra in San Francisco

SFJazz brought the Cuban son band Sierra Maestra back for their third visit to San Francisco, the first in many years, and the house was pretty packed when I walked in a few minutes after the show had already begun. The nine piece band was already in prime form and had a bunch of people dancing on the sidelines. Everything lead singer/guitarist Jesus Diaz said between songs was in Spanish, so the only thing I understood completely was when he introduced trumpeter extraordinaire Yelfris Espinosa as being younger than the band itself- true, since they formed in 1976.

They tore through an hour and a half long set, anchored by the five-piece rhythmic machine of Carlos Mansfarroll on guiro, Nico Menendez on bongos, congas and bells, Alejandro Galarraga on bells, congas and bongos, Barzaga Sosa on claves and vocals, and Virgilio Decalo on maracas and vocals. As a unit, the five of them were incredibly tight, but Luis Pino's electric bass played a large part in keeping every body in the house moving with his sinuous lines. But the band's secret weapon is tres player Emilio Batista, whose ability to create an amazing array of sounds from the tiny cousin of the guitar without added electronic effects was impressive.

The sound mix was really off in the beginning of the show, which had the band sounding like they were being played on the radio of a 1955 Bel-Air- which would be fine if you were in one, but they deserved better than the mix they were saddled with, which two techs tried to improve with only partial success- perhaps because only one of them seemed to be actually listening to what was going on. Fie!

Still, that didn't stop anyone from having a great time, myself included, as well as the band, who genuinely seemed pleased to be performing for the audience and their enthusiasm just made the gig that much more enjoyable. It was the perfect way to let go of what unexpectedly turned into the longest work day I've had in years.

SFJazz has a slew of great musicians coming to town in the next month, beginning with Carla Kihstedt's Tin Hat this Thursday night, which I'm really looking forward to seeing. Tickets are still available.