Away from his usual spotlight as band leader, but delivering some blistering solos throughout – most notably on opener ‘Wild Jungle’ and the swinging samba ‘Keep Talking’ – the show revealed a noticeably blasé Marsalis, content to play his sideman card here, leaving the hosting and heavy-duty chart scoring to the orchestra’s double bassist Carlos Henriquez, the man instrumental in proposing this winning collaboration following a trip the JLCO made to Havana, Cuba in 2010.
Adding to the show’s party air, and holding their own against the big, Basie-like horn riffs and driving swing meters ever present in Henriquez’s arrangements, also saw a spill of special guests summoned to the bandstand. Feverous spots from the likes of acoustic guitarist Jesús Cutino, pianist Alex Wilson and firm favourite Omar Puente on violin won over many, but it was undeniably Martinez and his trio opening the second set minus Marsalis and Co. that truly captured the raw heart of this music, proving compact can be as commanding with a selection of hymns from Havana that all but ousted the audience from their seats and to the aisles seeking willing dance partners.
Ultimately, Afro-Cuban Fiesta offered up a chance to hear the bracing bond between the music of Cuba, and that of American big band jazz. And whilst maintaining some of the air and grace from the trad clad revues Marsalis routinely rolls out, a show maybe more universal in its appeal to the masses.