An unusual Charleston combo plans to make some cool noise in West Ashley this Tuesday. The cozy Voodoo Tiki Bar and Lounge’s summer jazz series continues by way of electric guitar, upright bass, traditional percussion, an old Casio keyboard, and a junkyard loudspeaker as Garage Cuban Band hits the stage in the side parlor.
Guitarist Bill Carson, bassist Jonathan Gray, keyboardist Nathan Koci, and drummers Jack Burg and Ron Wiltrout perform what they call “a distinctive interpretation of Cuban music as it might be heard in a back alley, busy street, or dusty garage of the island nation.” Most of the group’s repertoire are standards and classics from the 1930s through the recent years, plus a few clever reworkings of American jazz and lounge hits.
“We’re definitely not trying to break ground,” says Carson. “We use some noisy sounds here and there, but even though we have a Casiotone, a Big Muff guitar pedal, and feedback solos, in terms of form, we stay pretty legit. I was only familiar with this music from listening to records. I was a fan. Initially, the stuff that drew me was not so much the salsa band thing, but the stuff that was more song-focused. We all sing, so it’s a little more focused on songs. We always bring elements of traditional and noise rock, so there’s a balance.”
Much of the traditional music in the GCB’s setlist is propelled by hand drums like bongos and congas, with additional shakers, cymbals, and timbales. Fortunately, the percussion section is physically and mentally prepared for the challenge.
“I studied some Latin music in college [at U.S.C.],” says Wiltrout. “When I first got to Charleston, one of the first gigs I got was with a Latin band called Brazil with the late Taras Kovayl. That was a great band, and it totally kicked my ass. One of the many things I had to learn how to do was to play a convincing salsa style on just the drum set. My studies didn’t prepare me for doing a house band gig like this, where you had to keep the energy up for four hours.”
With only a handful of local shows under their belt, the CGB is still taking shape and trying out ideas. Coming into the project, Koci and Wiltrout (both of Scandal in Bohemia and other projects) already had serious on-stage experience with local Cuban-jazz ensemble Havanason. All of the Garage Cuban Band guys collaborate on a variety of unique bands and unusual musical side projects. Most have dedicated enormous amounts of time, effort, and guidance to the local New Music Collective.
“I always appreciate Bill’s ability to have some kind of poetic approach,” says drummer Wiltrout. “I like the way he always seems to have a sort of preconceived idea architecturally in his mind … like, ‘This is gonna be a garage Cuban band,’ you know?”
In this configuration, the five Garage Cuban Band guys are anchored pretty well on a mix of Cuban folk and jazz styles. They not only comprehend but celebrate the rhythmic patterns and styles from an assortment of cultures, and they apply them to the improvisation within a jazz band setting.
“I started learning some Cuban music from Nathan and started dreaming up a Cuban band,” remembers Carson. “From the beginning, I knew which five people had to be involved … and there would be no negotiation [laughs].”
All of the amplification is built into what Carson calls the “sixth member of the band” — a “tower” of small amps featuring an antiquated, large-sized loudspeaker salvaged from a textile mill in the Upstate. All of the band’s vocal mics run through the re-rigged square-shaped speaker, with killer natural distortion, of course.
“The term ‘Latin jazz’ became a catch-all phrase to incorporate rhythms from all of those cultures and styles,” says Wiltrout. “But whenever you talk about samba or salsa, those are the things that actually have very rigid rules of form, places where improvisation happens, and very specific places where a singer or musician plays. So it’s a lot like pop or rock music, while being a lot like traditional jazz music, too.”