The headliner for Saturday night's portion of the SFCC Jazz Festival, Hilton Ruiz, will be playing a tribute to Tito Puente. Remember Santana in 1971 with "Oye Como Va"? They were covering Tito. Remember The Mambo Kings? By the time that movie came out in '92, Puente had been "El Rey," the King of the Mambo, for more than 40 years.
Where Tito used to get all bug-eyed over his timbales and vibraphone, Ruiz attacks his piano in similar fashion: slapping the keys and pounding them with his elbows, reaching inside to strum and pluck the piano wires. Influenced by the pounding chord density of McCoy Tyner, Ruiz styles himself the original bebop Latin jazz pianist. That style becomes apparent in the Latin soul groove of "Home Cooking" (which was selected for the Crimes and Misdemeanors soundtrack by Woody Allen, himself no slouch in jazz); in the relaxed, sultry-in-the-tropics mood of "Con Alma" and "Caravan," and even in the blues of Ruiz's cover of Billie Holliday's "God Bless the Child."
The jaunty title tune of Ruiz' recent CD, "Steppin' with T.P.," uses flute, cowbells and sax to evoke hot 'n' spicy nights. It's enough to make you don a Carmen Miranda fruit-hat and start shimmying. Other titles include "Cruizin' with Royal T" and "Mambo Para Puente," so you know Ruiz brings the real hot-salsa goods. In building his musical-tribute bridge back to Puente (who died in 2000), Ruiz will be joined by Lew Soloff on trumpet and Lew Tabackin (who plays a hard-driving sax in contrast to his soft Asian flute style -- possibly due to the influence of his wife, arranger and pianist Toshiko Akiyoshi).
Friday night features the artistic director of the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, flutist and sax man Dick Oatts. The VJO, which plays every Monday night at the famous club in Greenwich Village, was founded by trumpeter Thad Jones and drummer Mel Lewis, with whom Oatts worked back in the day.
Oatts, who has toured for years and taught at the Manhattan School of Music since 1989, will be backed by the SFCC Jazz Ensemble under Brian Ploeger and by Danny McCollim on piano, Eugene Jablonsky on bass and Rick Westrick on drums.
Dick Oatts at the SFCC Jazz Festival on Friday, Feb. 3, at 8 pm. Tickets: $15; $18, at the door; $10, students and seniors; $13, at the door. The Hilton Ruiz Sextet at the SFCC Music Auditorium on Saturday, Feb. 4, at 8 pm. Tickets: $25; $28, at the door; $20, students and seniors; $23, at the door. Visit www.ticketswest.com or call 533-3569.