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Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Rumba and the Rest

Rumbrava’s Caribbean rhythm club

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 Milwaukee has been called a big small town, but it’s large enough for musicians in overlapping circles to know each other without actually playing together for decades. Such was the case with respected Latin jazz percussionist Luis Diaz and the funky pop jazz duo of Connie Grauer and Kim Zick, aka Mrs. Fun.

 “When we started jamming together once a week, we commented that we’ve never collaborated after all these years,” Grauer says. And then there was a relative newcomer to town, Cuban-born cellist Ana Ruth Bermudez, who arrived via Venezuela in 2000. “Everybody asked us if we knew her,” Grauer continues. “It came up often enough that we went out and found her.”

 The result of all this old-school, in-person social networking is Rumbrava, a quartet exploring Afro-Cuban-Latin-jazz. To Bermudez, it’s simply pop music.

 “I grew up surrounded by popular music in Cuba, even though I learned classical music,” she says. “Playing popular music is a dream come true! When these ladies offered me the possibility of playing this music, I was afraid,” she says, laughing and nodding at Grauer and Zick. “But they convinced me. I wasn’t sure I could do it!”

 Featuring Grauer on keyboards and keyboard bass, Bermudez on cello and lead vocals, Diaz on congas and bongos and Zick on drum kit and timbales, Rumbrava glides easily over the complicated and various rhythms of the Latin Caribbean world. Bermudez infuses the lyrics with low-simmering soul. Much of the repertoire is drawn from Cuban and Puerto Rican standards. They also perform Dizzy Gillespie’s signature song, “A Night in Tunisia,” a marker pointing to the origins of Afro-Cuban jazz in the late 1940s. Stevie Wonder’s “Don’t You Worry ’bout a Thing” lends itself easily to Rumbrava’s slippery Latin groove.

 The rest of the material consists of originals by Grauer and Bermudez. Rumbrava’s sound is authentic, with no attempt to water down the fire for the smooth jazz crowd.

 “We pick the songs we like,” Bermudez explains. “We always talk. It’s a democracy, but at the end of the road, we all need to agree on everything.”

 Mrs. Fun and Diaz continue to perform in their separate groups while Bermudez plays in duo settings and guests with the Waukesha Symphony Orchestra, the Milwaukee Ballet Orchestra and other classical ensembles. For its members, Rumbrava is part of their lifelong journey in learning about music.

“The beautiful thing about this group is that we get so much from each other,” Zick says.

Rumbrava performs April 26 at Linneman’s.

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