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Owen McNally writes about jazz and other music events in Connecticut's Jazz Corridor, stretching from the tip of Fairfield County, right through New Haven and Hartford, and on up beyond the state into the Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts. Keep up with the best our area has to offer in music.

Ed Fast Reaps Fall Harvest With New Album, Weekly Series, and Upcoming Gig

Courtesy Ed Fast
Ed Fast performs with his band Conga Bop.

With the release of his fine new CD, Do or Die, and the launching of weekly appearances in the new Wine and Jazz Series at the posh Brignole Vineyards in East Granby, Ed Fast, the celebrated Latin jazz percussionist, composer, arranger, educator, and bandleader is celebrating full speed ahead in the fast lane with no detours in sight.

Most immediately on his agenda, the versatile multi-instrumentalist, who plays everything from congas and timbales to vibraphone and marimba, performs in the series with his quartet on Thursdays from 5:00 to 8:00 pm at the Brignole Vineyard, a locally owned and family-run, wine-making operation that bills itself as a "hub for local wine lovers."

Tapping into vintage material by Cal Tjader (the great Latin Jazz vibraphonist and one of Fast’s early idols), Tito Puente, Hilton Ruiz, and original works, Fast -- on vibraphone -- is joined in creating a complementary ambience by guitarist Gianni Gardner, bassist Leo Catricala, and the consummate conguero Jorge Fuentes. With its cool, vibrant, vibes-oriented sound, the quartet is sure to serve much musical veritas at the jazz and wine series. Feel free to bring cheese, crackers, and snacks to accompany your wine. No cover.

Information: brignolevineyards.com and (860) 653-9463.

Even aside from the new CD and the jazz and wine gig on Thursday evenings, Fast’s schedule is moving at an up-tempo pace, both on and off the bandstand.

Last December and January, the mobile maestro -- who has toured as a sideman with Broadway shows from Russia and China to Japan and South Korea -- had to turn down a job with Aretha Franklin to take a long-delayed jaunt to Africa to visit old friends.

On his visit, the globetrotter from Hartford managed to jam with local musicians in Tanzania, go on safari to the Ngorongoro Crater and even take a dip in the Indian Ocean on Christmas Day.

Credit Courtesy of Ed Fast
Courtesy of Ed Fast
Ed fast plays drums with dancers in Tanzania.

More recently on a professional note, he has tapped into his classical training — one of his great mentors was the famously versatile percussionist and Hartt School professor Alexander Lepak — as he played timpani in presentations of the Mozart Requiem at 9/11 commemorations in Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx.

Fast’s busy schedule, which has included recent plum musical tours — including with Arturo O’Farrill’s Afro-Cuban version of Bizet’s opera Carmen -- also features a weekly Sunday Latin jazz gig in New York City at Manhattan Brew & Vine.

Locally, he’ll be playing in Hartford on Friday, October 21, at 6:00 pm with Conga Bop at the Artists Collective’s popular Atrium Series, with a full lineup stocked with such Latin jazz groovemeisters and longtime Fast friends and collaborators as pianist Zaccai Curtis and trumpeter Joel Gonzalez, along with special guest vocalist Linda Ransom. Information: artistscollective.org and (860) 527-3205.

In a recent interview with Fast, the on-the-go bandleader, not surprisingly, wanted to focus on Do or Die -- a milestone achievement and overdue sequel to his acclaimed 2007 Conga Bop release, Straight Shot.

Fast wanted to talk not about himself, his solos, arrangements, or his four compositions on the new CD, but rather about the other musicians in the band and his special relationship over the years with a dedicated core group of stalwart players.

His Conga Bop cadre for the recording session features a guest appearance by the legendary guitarist Larry Coryell, along with a host of standout performances including the celebrated, Hartford-based trombonist Steve Davis and vocalist Linda Ransom, a song interpreter who can transform even the most elderly ballad into something freshly minted, 100 proof, and sexy sounding.

Virtually every regular player in Fast’s two or three platoon system on the recording is someone the affable leader has known and performed with on the Hartford scene for many years.

“My, God. I’ve worked with the Curtis brothers [pianist Zaccai and bassist Luques] since they were little kids. Steve Davis I’ve known from the beginning,” he said of his CD's lineup.

Credit Courtesy of Ed Fast
Courtesy of Ed Fast
Ed Fast wanted to talk about the other musicians in the band instead of himself.

These and numerous other underlying professional bonds and friendships over the years, he suggested, may well be at the root of the ensemble’s esprit de corps that illuminates Conga Bop’s organic hallmark sound even when the personnel lineups might change from track-to-track. In its various incarnations over the years, Conga Bop, for all its cast of rugged individual talents, has been a true collective.

“For me, this album is just a really meaningful, heartfelt collaboration. These aren’t hired hands for the recording sessions,” he said of Conga Bop. “These musicians are more like family to me.”

Whatever the changing mix of players from track-to-track on the new disc, the charts are uniformly smart and all the solos -- whether it’s trumpeter Josh Bruneau sounding like he’d fit right in with a classic Horace Silver Quintet -- or the hard-swinging, piano bench contributions provided by Zaccai Curtis or Sam Parker—are sharp, concise, right in the pocket just the way Fast loves it.

Variety abounds among the CD’s 13 selections, including an original by trumpeter Jim Hunt, plus pieces by Horace Silver, Jerome Richardson, Duke Ellington, and George Gershwin. With Ransom furnishing the icing on the cake, there are deliciously fresh takes on several standards, including "Nature Boy" and "Willow Weep for Me," plus fresh perspectives on the late composer/percussionist Bill Fitch’s "Insight," a favorite Fast signature tune.

Part of what makes Fast’s role as a bandleader extra rewarding for him is the remarkable depth, versatility and array of talent among the simpatico professionals he has united here under his Conga Bop banner.

Take, for example, his being blessed with an alternating triumvirate of tenor players that includes Kris Jensen, Frank Kozyra, and Chris Herbert. With a bench like that, you can’t lose. Similarly, consider the band’s bass chair held down on one track by the much-in-demand Luques Curtis, and, in an iron man role on the remaining 12 tracks, by the indefatigable, Matt Dwonszyk.

Fast’s well-tooled, Afro-Cuban swing machine runs on unique, compatible, and if necessary, virtually interchangeable parts. A band of notable collective and individual expression, its whole product is greater than the sum of its parts.

Obviously, Coryell was the visitor among this tightly-knit coterie of Conga Bop players. Getting Coryell into the studio to sit-in on two tracks was a mix of pure accident and good karma, even a miracle of sorts, Fast said.

“I met Coryell, who I had never seen before,” Fast explained, “at JFK when we were both waiting for our flights to Europe.”

“I just happened to see this guy carrying a guitar case, so I went over and asked him what kind of music he played. He said, ‘Jazz.’ I said, ‘What’s your name?’ ‘Larry Coryell,’ he said. I was stunned.

“We chatted for several hours before boarding the plane. I told him about my upcoming recording project and asked if he might be interested in participating. He had an opening, he said, around the time when he was to play with Gary Burton at the Blue Note in New York, and said he’d love to do it,” Fast said, still sounding pleasantly surprised.

Even Coryell’s bonus cameo appearance, with its star glitter, sheds even more light on the depth of Fast’s virtually all-in-the-family collaboration, since Conga Bop guitarist Rich Goldstein quite gracefully fills the guitar chair on other tracks. With or without star power, Conga Bop has an aura all is own.

Please submit press releases at least three weeks before publication date to omac28@gmail.com. Comments welcome.

Owen McNally writes the weekly Jazz Corridor column for WNPR.org as well as periodic freelance pieces for The Hartford Courant and other publications.

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