June 14, 2024

Los Hombres Calientes
by Mark Ruffin

When the eponymous debut album from the group Los Hombres Calientes scaled Billboard’s jazz charts earlier this year, the only person who wasn’t surprised was percussionist and co-leader Bill Summers. It was the nose of the veteran musician that alerted him that he had something special with Los Hombres Calientes.

“I could smell success from the first gig,” said Summers who won an Emmy with Quincy Jones for his work on the soundtrack to the historic television mini-series “Roots,” and he played the memorable African percussion and voice parts at the beginning of Herbie Hancock & the Headhunters 70’s mega-hit, “Watermelon Man.”

“My first whiff was with Herbie,” the 51 year-old musician continued. “No one knew that album was going to be the largest selling jazz album of all time. “Then when Quincy called and as I worked with him on “Roots” I noticed it was a similar odor between that and the Headhunters thing. It’s like a meal, when you smell it, you recognize it And after working on “The Color Purple,” and “The Wiz,” I began to see and became able to identify the odor of success.

“Now Los Hombres Calientes comes along and of all of those dishes that I ate, none of them smell as good as this one.. None of them have anywhere near the same kind of vibe.”

The group, which hails from New Orleans and features Wynton’s youngest brother Jason Marsalis on drums, has just released their second album appropriately titled “Volume 2.” It is more of the unique Latin jazz based music of Los Hombres Calientes that can best be described as a Crescent City culinary staple- their music is a gumbo.

With no exaggeration, the new record features a Brazilian blues number, a reggae tune with r&b overtones, a pop-jazz cover with a Latin beat, a New Orleans tango, an Afro-Cuban classical-tinged-suite, and a boogie-woogie tune.. And just for good measure the cd ends with some good old 70’s funk courtesy of a medley of Herbie Hancock’s “Chameleon,” and the P-Funk anthem “We Want The Funk.”

“If we do a gig in front of a thousand people, 200 will by the cd on the spot,” Summers said assuredly “As far as the way people react to Los Hombres Calientes, I’ve never seen anything like it. On our very first gig, we were offered two record contracts..

From the time he was six, when he and he brother started their ten year stay at the Detroit Conservatory of Music , Summers has had a long history of making groups happen. As a young pianist and percussionist, he grew up at a time when many great jazz stars such as Kenny Burrell and Tommy Flanagan were just leaving the Motor City and the Motown sound was just taking over.

“I don’t think I missed much as far as the exodus was concerned,” he said. “Musically, there was still a lot happening. Yusef Lateef was still there and Donald Byrd lived on my block so I played in many of his groups.

“In Detroit, at that time, the clubs would open up weekend jam sessions to minors,” Summers continued. “Any minor could walk into any jazz club in Detroit and play. That’s how musicians in Detroit, who wanted to learn jazz learned. There weren’t any schools that taught it. Plus every Saturday and Sunday afternoon we had first entrée to all the Motown acts playing at either the Fox Theatre or the 20 Grand Lanes.”

Summers left the then fertile Michigan music scene to attend college at the University of California at Berkley, the epicenter of the turbulent 60’s and home to, arguably, the most creative pop music scene of that decade. Out of that area at that time the local bands were Sly & the Family Stone, Santana, Tower of Power, the Grateful Dead, the Pointer Sisters and many other groups. It was a radical hotbed of politics and music and a white man named David Rubinson managed and produced many of the artists including Hancock.

“I learned 85% of what I know now about the music business from David Rubinson,” Summers said. “I know him like I know the back of my hand. I was the only member of Herbie’s band all up in David’s face learning what made things go”

However, it would be incorrect to call Rubinson Summers’ mentor. The knowledge he gained, he took it by observation, Rubinson didn’t give it by instruction. In fact when after five years of being in Hancock’s band, Summers announced he wanted to start a solo career, Rubinson laughed.

“I mean literally busted out in hysteria,” Summers remembered. “You know like ‘here’s the nigger of the music industry, the bongo player, talking about going solo.” That’s what the percussion player is. We’re the last one hired and the first one fired. The way he viewed me was not with the respect that should’ve been there. I’ll never forget him laughing at me for as long as I live.”

The young percussionist took the negative energy and turned it positive by eventually landing a major record deal and enjoying success with his late 70’s group Summer’s Heat.

Summers spent most of the 80’s producing music and working as a first-call Los Angeles percussion player. He re-united with Hancock in 1994 co-producing the keyboard whiz’ album “Dis Is Da Drum.” By that time Summers had fulfilled a lifelong dream by moving to New Orleans.

“As I grew up, all I heard my parents talk about was ‘back home,’ so obviously I wasn’t at home where I was,” Summers said laughing. “After hearing that for over 20 years, I said, it’s time to go home.”

On a big tract of Louisiana land left to him by his grandparents, Summers is building the Summers Multi-Ethnic Institute of the Arts. Open for a few years now, the school immediately began attracting New Orleans top musicians including Jason Marsalis who signed up to further his knowledge of Afro-Cuban rhythms.

“The institute is more like a university,” Summers said. “Every Saturday night, I have an open drum forum where we play traditional music of Africa and African derived stuff from the Diaspora. Jason started coming by and after a while he brought over the piano player who is now in the band, Victor Atkins. Then (trumpeter) Irvin Mayfield started coming a couple of months later. Virtually every member of the band, at some point, started coming by for these classes. Eventually, we came to the conclusion that we should put a band together and that’s how Los Hombres Calientes started.”

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