Vibraphone has often been a rare specialty on the local jazz scene, but two vibes-based bands have recently appeared: Onda, an up-and-coming Brazilian quartet, did three sets at Brasa, while Juan Alamo Quintet gave a formidable Cal Tjader tribute as part of the Carolina Jazz Festival.
Onda, coming up on one year as a band in April, marks Stephen Coffman’s vibes debut. Better known as a trapset drummer with Peter Lamb & The Wolves, Shana Tucker and The Beast, Coffman shedded hard on his vibes technique after hooking up with guitarist Nelson Johns at a Blue Note Grill jam session.
“I was looking for a vibes player to play with, and Doug Largent recommended him,” says Johns.
Johns first got the Brazilian bug in college when he studied under Stan Smith, former guitarist with legendary Brazilian composer Moacir Santos; Johns continues his studies now with Baron Tymas at N.C. Central. Jazz and blues bassist Eric Meyer plays upright bass for the quartet, while Venezuelan multi-percussionist Ana Mitchell adds cajón, pandeiro and bongó. Their well-rehearsed setlist on Saturday avoided cliches while giving life to standards by Jobim and Horace Silver. Other numbers moved between the soulful and the whimsical.
Energy defines Juan Alamo, the Puerto Rican-born mallet virtuoso who, in his day job as a musicology professor, directs the UNC Percussion Ensemble. With a Ph.D. from the University of North Texas, Alamo also graduated magna cum laude from the Conservatory of Music of Puerto Rico before taking over assistant professor duties in Chapel Hill in 2012. Last May, Alamo occupied the Beyù stage with his quartet, marking the first time the venue had hosted a five-octave marimba. That show marked the release of Marimjazzia, Alamo’s second solo CD; he heads to Europe with it March 4–18.
For Carolina Jazz Festival’s Latin Jazz Night on Thursday, Alamo helmed a vibes quintet to revive six Cal Tjader classics. Tjader’s West Coast cool seems deceptively laidback, but it requires precision. The quintet nailed it, with pianist Jim Crew, bassist Peter Kimosh, conguero Nelson Delgado and timbalero Ramon Ortiz lending thrilling support to Alamo’s powerful playing. One of Alamo’s students, UNC freshman Chase Carroll, gave his teacher a run for his money on “Mamblues,” as the two dueled on one instrument.
Some of Alamo’s UNC colleagues sat in: Charanga Carolina director Andy Kleindienst brought trombone to “Curaçao” and jazz program director Jim Ketch brought flugelhorn to “Mindanao.” Festival guest artists Rodney Whitaker and Etienne Charles, music faculty at Michigan State University, joined, too. Detroit bassist Whitaker, a disciple of Cuban masters Cachao and Cachaito, and Trinidadian trumpeter Charles felt at home within the Caribbean grooves.
If this is what Alamo’s vibes quintet can achieve on a single rehearsal, one hopes the Cal Tjader test run will be repeated. In the meantime, Onda and Alamo’s small combos can be heard gigging around the Triangle at places like Brasa, Beyù Caffè, The Shed, C Grace and Irregardless Café.