It’s been a long and winding road of rhythm for Louie Cruz Beltran, who’s worked the restaurant and late-night club circuit for years to make a living.
But then he got the call of a lifetime recently to perform at the prestigious 34th Annual Playboy Jazz Festival at the Hollywood Bowl on June 16, and the Bakersfield percussionist plans to take full advantage of the career exposure the gig offers.
“My manager was doing some financial stuff for a rehearsal studio in Burbank. She just walked up and goes, ‘Guess what?’ I said, ‘What?’ She said, ‘You’re doing the Playboy Jazz Festival.’ I said, ‘Cool, man … All right.’ I canceled rehearsal and went partying,” Cruz recalled during a recent phone interview in Bakersfield.
Beltran, who commutes frequently between his homes in Bakersfield and Los Angeles, is a familiar face to local music lovers. His playing days reach back to the ’70s, when he fronted several funk and Latin groups in the area. In the decades since, his fiery drumming and smooth vocal stylings have been in demand alongside pop singer Rita Coolidge, R&B/disco group DeBlanc in France and many others. He continues writing, performing and recording, mostly in Southern California, where he’s built an impressive following.
“There’s only so many clubs to play in Bakersfield. It took three to four years to work my way into Los Angeles, and that’s when people started calling me more for shows. It’s fate mixed with a resume for them to book you,” he said. “Especially for the Playboy Jazz Festival. You have to stay conscious to the fact that as a professional musician, all of these avenues are roads to the next level.”
Above: Bakersfield percussionist Louie Cruz Beltran appears in the lineup at this year’s Playboy Jazz Festival at the Hollywood Bowl on June 16. Photo by Michael Lopez
Beltran has three full-length CD releases to his credit, including his latest, “Paint the Rhythm.” He describes the project, featuring 12 tracks of originals mixed with reinterpretations of some of his favorite songs, as the culmination of his ongoing evolution and experiences. He assembled some well-known players in the Southern California and coastal jazz scene he’s befriended over the years to back him in the studio: pianist Joe Rotondi, saxophonist Justo Almario, plus notable guests like flute player Hubert Laws, acclaimed percussionists Poncho Sanchez and Giovanni Hidalgo, drummer Peter Michael Escovedo, bassist Abraham Laboriel, and on backing vocals he recruited brother Robert — whom many know as Commander Chakotay from the “Star Trek: Voyager” TV series.
“When you finally have an opportunity to do a project like this, you wanna make sure you work up to it and get the army together. I’d always had this dream of getting guys like Poncho and Giovanni together to do some percussion. I’m a percussionist by nature — that’s what I do. These two guys are innovators for me. To actually record with them. …One is to dream, the other thing is to wake up and do it,” said Beltran. “To have those guys in the studio, you know you’re going to have something special. They’re all good carpenters who know how to build a house of music.”
Another big name that stands out in the credits is legendary Cuban saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera, who assisted with an arrangement of the Cal Tjader Latin jazz standard, “Soul Sauce (Guachi Guaro.)” Beltran described D’Rivera’s creative input as that of a wise sage.
“Paquito doesn’t have to say much. He just says to add this horn line and spice it up,” Beltran recalled. “When you work with cats of this caliber, one of the things I noticed is that they really don’t give you advice; they see it as your baby. They walk in and work as part of the overall picture. Bottom line is, it’s your band. You can hear people talk and hear the thumbs up. There was complete respect for my music and compositions.”
“Paint the Rhythm” is an accessible and consistently entertaining collection of songs that harkens back to ’70s-era crossover offerings of Latin rock and jazz percussion icons Coke Escovedo and Willie Bobo. Opening with the original cha-cha “Chili Caliente,” the album draws listeners in by the boogaloo-inspired piano intro and convinces them to stick around for the rest of the party with fun vocals by Beltran, who even throws in a kitschy “shimmy shimmy cocoa pop.”
Next up is a silky mid-tempo cover of Burt Bacharach’s “The Look of Love,” also sung by Beltran, who adds a cool, soulful touch to the lounge classic.
The tempos pick up from there with the title track, more catchy originals and covers from Santana and Tito Puente. Some are faithful to the original arrangements, others offer new touches, heavily leaning toward traditional Afro-Cuban stylings.
“I’ve always wanted to play timbales on Tito Puente’s ‘Ran Kan Kan.’ To have it recorded in the studio with a full horn section was unbelievable. My song ‘Rumba Chula’ was a song I wrote about 10 years ago. I also had to pay tribute to my Chicano brother, Carlos Santana, because, wow, what an influence he was with many musicians and understanding the crossover concept. I didn’t want to veer too much away from my vision of keeping the Latin/Afro-Cuban percussion in and not bring in a drum set for our version of ‘Black Magic Woman.’”
Beltran is never shy about sharing life anecdotes and, in conversation, is always full of wit. That type of positive energy resonates throughout. Behind the congas and timbales, he shines when it’s his turn to solo.
And, like his influence, Poncho Sanchez, who helped introduce new fans to Latin jazz, Beltran should have no problem doing the same with “Paint the Rhythm.”
Beltran said he appreciates all the support he’s received from his hometown on his Playboy Jazz Festival honor, with special shout-outs to his patient wife, Christina, and loving mother, Aurelia.
“This is a great thing. I really feel that I have my hometown with me. It’s wonderful to have a great relationship like that. It’s nice to go with friends and family in your heart. We all do it together. I carry my roots with me no matter where I go, right here in my corazon.”
Also appearing with Beltran on June 16 are the Christian McBride Big Band, Boney James, Ozomatli, Sheila E., Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings, The Soul Rebels, Global Gumbo All Stars, Cos of Good Music, The LAUSD/Beyond the Bell All City Jazz Band, and master of ceremonies Bill Cosby. The June 17 line-up features Ramsey Lewis Electric Band, Robin Thicke, Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Keb' Mo', Terri Lyne Carrington's Mosaic Project, and more.
"Paint The Rhythm" is available locally at World Records in Bakersfield (661-831-3100) and online at most digital download sites - including iTunes, Amazon.com.
Related story: On The Beat With Louie Cruz Beltran
Louie Cruz Beltran official website
34th Annual Playboy Jazz Festival
When: 3 p.m. June 16 and 17, 2012
Where: Hollywood Bowl, 2301 N. Highland Ave., Los Angeles
Tickets: $20 to $160, plus service charge
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Also printed in the 6-7-12 issue of The Bakersfield Californian