When I arrived at Upstairs at 6:30 for the first of three sets by the John Benitez group (supposed to start at 7), there were no cymbals on the kit, no bass on stage, and no musicians in the house. Due to some unexpected transportation problems, the band only arrived at 7:15 and hit around 7:50. Both John and club owner Joel Giberovitch apologized profusely for the delays; it didn’t seem to affect the music one bit.
As soon as everything was set up and soundchecked to their liking, the band launched into a set of tunes from their new album, Purpose. The first tune took a happy, major-key riff and used it to modulate through various key centres, on top of Benitez’s wide tumbao as its anchor. Manuel Valera was an inspiring pianist – he’s got a great handle on the 1960s post-bop language, beautifully soulful chord voicings, and an ear for intriguing, denser polychords, but he really lifted the band to a new level every time he unleashed a montuno, as he did behind saxophonist Yosvany Terry. Many of the tunes in the set were either sectional or longer-forms, filled with unison figures split among different members of the band. Terry picked up his shekere for Tom Guarna’s guitar solo, whose clean sound, with a bit of delay, added some breath and atmosphere around the band. Guarna’s moment to truly shine came in his solo introduction to the second tune of the set, a beautiful ballad featuring out-of-time statements from Benitez and Valera. Guarna and Valera dovetailed their sounds and lines behind Terry’s alto solo, elegantly staying out of each other’s way.
Francis Benitez, John’s son, is a force to be reckoned with. At his young age, he’s got chops galore but also the discipline to sit in the pocket. From traditional cascara patterns to funky backbeats to some of the most convincing swing I’ve heard at this edition of the festival, the father-son rhythm section drove the band forward. Definitely a drummer to watch out for. In addition to being a fantastic alto player, Terry is also a virtuoso on the shekere, as he displayed on the unaccompanied intro to “Rumba.” He and the younger Benitez were greatly responsible for finding new colours in the grooves behind the soloists.
From there, it was over to the mainstage to dive into some salsa dura from NYC’s La Excelencia. Getting there an hour early, I watched as Montreal’s tight-knit community of salsa dancers congregated towards the front and warmed up with miniature expositions as the crowd clapped the clave. La Excelencia is crafted from the same classic Nuyorican salsa mould as the Fania Records heyday of Willie Colón and Johnny Pacheco – intricate horn arrangements that never lost the groove, a pianist that was a montuno machine, and a propulsive timbalero. The singer indulged in a bit too much crowd animation for my liking (I counted about 5 “Montreaaaaaaaaal” shout-outs in an hour-long set, and he repeated “Do you want to continue?” at escalating volume three times in a row), but the band and the tunes were great. They’re the perfect argument for the return of salsa orchestras to clubs – dancers never dance as well to a DJ as they do to a live band.