Ismael Barajas Latin Jazz BandISMAEL BARAJAS HAS long been a mainstay on the Tucson Latin music scene playing flamenco guitar, Latin jazz and salsa. At age 38, he has been playing professionally for 24 years. Most local Latin jazz musicians have been in one or more of his bands which have included With Friends in Mind, Compie and Rhumba Son.
"Every time I had a major change in personnel, I felt I needed to change the name," Barajas explains. "It's much simpler to just call it the Ismael Barajas Latin Jazz Band."
His latest assembly includes soprano saxophonist Jason Crane, Steven Sainz on bass, Ricardo Silva on wood flute, panpipes and bongos; Jose Zayas on timbales and percussion, and conguero Bob Moreno. It's a smaller band than the other contenders for Best Latin Jazz Band but it works.
"To be a salsa band, you have to have brass and a pretty big band. But I make my own arrangements of salsa tunes for our band. I like to have our own interpretation of the music. In the nightclubs around here it's hard to book a band of 13 or 14 pieces unless you're doing a special event," the guitarist says. "With a smaller band, it's a lot easier to get work and adjust to the size of the nightclub. We do Gypsy Kings material, a lot of Flamenco material and mix it in with jazz. It's our version. I don't want to play the original interpretation, because you're never going to make it sound the same, no matter what size band you have."
Barajas' formula seems to work. His band has been playing regular gigs at the San Francisco Bar and Grill, 3922 N. Oracle Rd., for four years. Currently, they play there on Fridays and at the new San Francisco Bar and Grill, 6548 E. Tanque Verde Rd., on Saturday nights. A smaller version of the band is back at the Oracle location on Sunday nights from 5:30 to 9:30. It's a jazz trio with guitar, sax, bass and a little drum machine they call Guillermo.
Another reason the band is so popular, Barajas says, is that they make the people feel comfortable dancing.
"I like for people to get up and dance whether they know how or not," he says. "We're not going to be holding up score cards at the end. People feel that they are being graded at other clubs."
Barajas says he thinks the Latin music scene is at a high point right now and he enjoys the competition.
"It's a good feeling to know that you have the vote of the people," he says of the TAMMIES honor. "They're the ones that attend your performances weekend after weekend "
Sounds of Brazil
ONE KEY TO Sound of Brazil's success is the band's authentic sound of Brazil. Founder and Afro-Brazilian percussionist Paulo Torres is a native of Bahia, Brazil where many of the popular songs the group plays originate. Torres recently returned from his homeland where he had spent a month collecting new material.
The two newest members have altered the band's sound with a more jazzy approach. Alieksey Vianna, a Brazilian guitar scholarship student at the University of Arizona, recently won a jazz competition. Pianist Mike Eckroth is a sophomore in the UA jazz program.
"We basically do music by popular Brazilian composers like Gilberto Gil," Torres says. "Because of Alieksey's and Mike's jazz background, we try to add that too, and spice it up. We're doing more jazz tunes, especially in quieter clubs like Cafe Sweetwater. We do more samba, bossa nova and afoxe and less of the dance music."
Always versatile, dance music is still in the band's repertoire and they'll play it at Carnival time and party gigs. Rounding out the group is longtime member Bill Martinez on percussion and a fairly new bassist, Bill Ronstadt. The band, which also includes drummer Bill Martinez can be heard at the San Francisco Bar and Grill, 3922 N. Oracle Rd.; Cafe Sweetwater, 340 E. Sixth St.; and Cushing Street Bar and Restaurant, 343 S. Meyer.
© 1995 Tucson Weekly