'I think in the studio we were mostly trying to capture the tunes,' says El Clan Destino drummer Frank Martinez a few minutes before the group takes the stage at Restaurant Magnus. He's summing up the organizing principle behind Rukus, the Madison quartet's debut CD, a varied instrumental disc that focuses on their inventive fusion of Latin and jazz styles.
The album makes an especially strong case for the keyboard skills of Vincent Fuh, who penned five of the album's eight tracks. Whether he's offering up stabbing block chords, ruminating Bill Evans-style on his flamenco-flavored ballad 'Andalucia' or rolling through syncopated rhythmic figures on 'Salome,' Fuh is always impressive. Martinez, conga player Jamie Ryan and bassist Nick Moran bring a welcome vivacity to the interlocking rhythms that motivate most tracks, but they mostly come across as supporting players on Rukus. The roles are reversed on the album-ending title cut. Both percussionists are mixed front and center on the Martinez-penned tune, and the band's jazz side is diminished.
Live, El Clan Destino are a different animal. Martinez is right: Rukus definitely captures the tunes, but it really doesn't represent how explosive the quartet can be.
Or how central Afro-Cuban call-and-response vocal parts are to its performances. Each El Clan Destino show begins with a half-chanted call to the Yoruban god Elegua, alerting audiences that the music to follow expands outward from deeply rooted styles and traditions. Nearly every tune ratchets up from some combination of the players' four voices or segues into an energetic coro section after a Fuh improvisation.
In concert, both percussionists also exhibit much more power than they do on CD. Particularly Martinez, who can transform one of Fuh's carefully wrought fusions of Latin, jazz and other elements into a tumbling celebration of sound with a few sharp reports of his timbales. At Magnus' comfortable tapas-bar-cum-music room, Fuh's R&B-flavored soloing on an Afro-Cuban adaptation of the '70s Jeff Beck fusion signature 'Led Boots' (which also appears on the album) didn't really catch fire until Martinez goosed the beat with a blur of stick work that made both the keyboardist and a sweating Moran grin broadly. Employing mostly cow bell and timbales, he provided the same extra kick on the ferocious reading of 'El Rukus' that brought the band's short second set to a stunning climax before a far-too-small crowd of fans and late-night partiers.
So buy the album, by all means. It's an interesting hybrid, and Fuh's playing brims with ideas. But also make a point of catching El Clan Destino at a local nightspot. That's where their music really ignites.