A toe-tappin’, finger-snappin’ groove with James Dreier and Ritmocano

Music in Muscatine

James Dreier and Ritmocano perform at The Mill in Iowa City as they release new “Iowa Friends Cuban Music” album. Photo by Rod Peck

By Rod Peck

My musical tastes are very much American. However, since Terri and I saw a local Latin Jazz band known as James Dreier and Ritmocano a few years ago at the Iowa City Jazz Festival, I have become intrigued by the way Latin rhythms and percussion can blend in seamlessly with Jazz. So when I saw they were having a CD-release party for their new offering, Iowa Friends Cuban Music, at The Mill in Iowa City on Thursday, Feb. 13, I knew we had to be there.

With the show being so close to Valentine’s Day, Terri and I decided to have our celebration a day early, and there are few better options than an evening of good food and good music at The Mill. An Iowa City landmark since 1962, the intimate and rustic setting is ideal for taking in a show and having a good meal all in one place. The wooden tables and knotty pine walls lend to an enjoyable, and romantic, atmosphere for a fine dining and music-listening experience. We’ve been there numerous times, and my only wish is they would offer a dessert menu, as a slice of cheesecake or tiramisu would have topped off our meal nicely. So, my tip for The Mill: we were ready to spend more money!

In the great tradition of Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers, bandleader James Dreier is also Ritmocano’s drummer, and it was fascinating to see Mr. Dreier directing the seven-piece ensemble’s action from behind the drum kit. I have to admit, I often find myself taking the rhythm section for granted, but that is impossible with this band, which has Paul Cunliffe on timbales set to Mr. Dreier’s left and on this night, Cuban-born Maurice Artiaga (filling in for regular Ed East) on a congas set to his left. From the moment they started to play, an infectious, toe-tappin’, finger-snappin’ groove began to emanate from the bandstand. The percussive rhythms served to set the stage for the band’s magnificent, two-pronged horn attack, which features Dr. Damani Phillips on alto saxophone and Rich Medd on trombone. Dr. Steve Shanley on piano and Danny Oline on bass complete Ritmocano’s lineup. The overall sound and feel of the band really bowled me over and served to pique my interest in hearing more Latin Jazz.

As with many American rock fans, for most of my life my main experience with Latin music had been through the seminal ‘60s band Santana. So I was naturally delighted when I spoke with Mr. Dreier and found that this was true for him as well. “I grew up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, which is hardly a bastion of Latin music. I got into it starting when Santana’s first album came out in 1969, which inspired me to buy a conga set of my own.” Eventually, Mr. Dreier made his way to the famed Berklee College of Music in 1977, and stayed in the Boston area until 1986 before moving back to Iowa. Upon his return, he met up with Bob Washut, longtime Director of Jazz Studies at the University of Northern Iowa, which led him to become a member of the Latin Jazz band Orquesta Alto Maiz, which disbanded in 2012. It was at this point Mr. Dreier decided to start his own group.

Ritmo is the Spanish word for rhythm, the cano part is taken from the term Americana, and so Ritmocano is a name I made up from those elements,” notes Mr. Dreier, whose day job is as Associate Professor of Jazz Instruction at the University of Iowa. “The guys in the band are all people I either knew from my days in Orquesta Alto Maiz or are my colleagues from the university,” Mr. Dreier commented, adding that “I really believe this band has potential to develop a following, but with seven guys in the group who are all busy with their own lives, it’s logistically challenging to find times when we can all play together.”

I had been listening to Ritmocano’s first album, from 2014 and titled Familia, purchased that July day in 2015 at the Jazz Festival, as preparation for the show, and since then I’ve been listening to Iowa Friends Cuban Music almost non-stop since we got home Thursday night. Jazz is the most complex of all American music forms, made all the more so by the Latin bent of Ritmocano’s music, and so I offer the disclaimer that this is not my area of greatest expertise. Having said that, I love this album, and I have to believe that just about any serious music fan would love it, too, if given the opportunity. The concept of having guest appearances by many of this area’s finest musicians only adds to the album’s appeal. Of particular delight here are guitarist Steve Grismore’s contributions on two tunes, “Basso Urnesto” and “Cancion.” In my conversation with Mr. Dreier, we agreed that what Mr. Grismore played was something very close to what Carlos Santana himself would have delivered had he been in the room. The material is an appropriate mix of the old and new, with superb, Latin-tinged cover versions of the George Gershwin standard “Summertime” mixed with Duke Ellington’s “African Flower” complementing the originals, such as Mr. Dreier’s composition “Nubbs (For Al)” and guest bassist Mark Urness’ “Cancion” in sublime fashion.

The more I listen to Iowa Friends Cuban Music, the more I appreciate just how good it really is. I don’t believe it’s an overstatement to say that it’s hard to imagine a better Jazz album being made this year, and I want to enthusiastically encourage eastern Iowa music fans to support it. You can go to Ritmocano.com to find a link for a digital download via CD Baby or to order a physical copy. And remember, if Ritmocano wins a Grammy next year for Best Latin Jazz Album, you heard about it here first!  If this seems like an outlandish declaration, I’ll add that last year I did seek out Chick Corea and the Spanish Hearts Band’s Antidote, which won the same award just a few weeks ago, and I can safely say I’m enjoying Iowa Friends Cuban Music much more. That’s what I know for sure, and I urge you to find out for yourself.