When the grooves get fierce, Hermann Lara feels right at home. Since moving back to the Bay Area in 1998 after earning a degree at Berklee College of Music, the San Francisco-born saxophonist has played in a vast array of dance-inducing settings, from Cuban timba ensembles and merengue bands to salsa combos and funk orchestras.
This month he’s settling into Jupiter for a Tuesday night residency, opening on Aug. 7 with a trio featuring keyboardist Mark Davis and Berkeley electric bassist Scott Thompson (who plays with many leading Brazilian musicians). Toward the end of the month he presents his trio Organomix with the young Hammond B3 player Brian Ho and drummer Lorca Hart.
“Both groups are working with the same kind of music, a lot of originals and original arrangements,” says Lara, 40. “I really avoid playing standards, but when I pull one out I’ll do more than change the key. I change the harmony and rhythm and play it with say, a reggaeton feel or a songo beat.”
Over the past decade Lara has been most visible through a five-year stint with the great Cuban sonero Fito Reinoso (2000-2004) and a three-year run with underground funk stalwarts Stymie and the Pimp Jones Luv Orchestra (2004-2007). But recently he’s been stepping forward as a bandleader in his own right, releasing his first CD last year “New Mission,” an impressive groove-jazz session featuring fusion guitar star Mike Stern and Bay Area electric bass master Curtis Ohlson.
Born to a Salvadoran mother and Costa Rican father who met in San Francisco, Lara grew up in the Mission District surrounded by Latin American music. At home he absorbed the vast treasure trove of boleros, cumbias, merengues, and sones that are considered standards across Latin America. The drum circles at Dolores Park ignited a passion for Afro-Cuban rhythms that eventually led him to study with the revered Puerto Rican conguero Giovanni Hidalgo.
“I took for granted being able to hear masters like Armando Peraza and John Santos,” he says. “They were just part of my sonic landscape. I’m Latino but it’s been a struggle to really be in tune with the Afro-Cuban thing. I had to study that stuff really hard. I spent hundreds of hours learning how to dance, leaning how to play clave. Rhythm is so integral to my music.”
He credits Altaneze Taylor, a jazz lover who launched the San Francisco after-school program Bright Moments Music Lovers Club, with providing the training that earned him a scholarship to Berklee. Taylor, who was killed in 2001, was a tireless advocate for children, and she recruited top-shelf musicians to provide music lessons to any and all young comers. When he was stopping by regularly in the 1980s, Lara studied with the great bassist Herbie Lewis, who spent his nights gigging with Joe Henderson and Bobby Hutcherson.
“Herbie ran it not so much by choice,” Lara recalls. “It wasn’t easy to say no to Altaneze Taylor. Herbie would play bass and sing lines to you. He’d also play piano and drums sometimes. Sometimes we’d work on a Woody Herman tune all afternoon, or a Sonny Rollins piece. I was there from 4 to 9 pm every day, and he was giving you entrée into the music scene.”
While Lara is devoted to music, he’s long held down non-musical day jobs, working in investment and high tech. These days he’s employed as a consultant at a software company, training people on how to most effectively use financial software. He’s tickled by the fact that he acquired his non-musical vocations on the fly, while he fulfilled his calling as an improviser through rigorous training.
“A lot of people go to school to learn finance and business,” Lara says. “I learned it by doing it, hustling up temp jobs and then getting licensed. But I needed to get some training on music.”
Eager to introduce his new band Organomix at Jupiter, Lara is deep into plans for his next recording, which will feature Ho and Hart. As the name suggests, the B3 dominates the group sound with its expansive dynamic range.
“Sometimes playing with an organ is like trying to stop a semi trailer,” Lara says. “Sometimes it’s like jumping off a cliff. It’s a big sound. But I’m a contrarian by nature. Sometimes I’ll go small in response. Brian has a great touch. He’s very clear and lyrical, really sensitive and doesn’t over play. I’ve been writing a lot music specifically for this group.”
For details of Hermann’s performances, visit Jupiter.
Andrew Gilbert, whose Berkeleyside music column appears every Thursday, also covers music and dance for the San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and KQED’s California Report. He lives in west Berkeley.
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