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Tiempo Libre

Pantagraph

BCPA READIES FOR LATIN, AFRO-CUBAN FUSION OF SOUNDS

Pantagraph

Thursday, March 22, 2007

by Dan Craft

First things first: "We want to change the whole world. We want everyone to dance the timba."

Not just their friends, their families and their fans.

"Everyone."

So dreams Jorge Gomez, founding member and music director for Miami's Tiempo Libre, the twice-Grammy-nominated septet determined to at least get the Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts crowd on its feet Friday night.

Tiempo Libre, which means "free time," doesn't mean you can get into their show gratis for some, well, no-cost good times (though the seats are still a steal at $14 to $24.50).

Rather, the group's name refers to how the band began, circa 2001. That's when its seven members would gather for jams and rehearsals in their "tiempo libre."

Around 5½ years later, the free time has paid off - not only via their burgeoning popularity with both Spanish- and English-speaking music fans, but also from some well-earned respect, including Grammy nominations for two years running (the most recent being for their current album, "What You've Been Waiting For/Lo Que Esperabas," a contender in the Best Tropical Latin Album category at the ceremonies last month).

Gomez, 35, describes the Tiempo Libre sound as a spicy salsa that combines elements of Latin jazz and traditional Cuban and Afro-Cuban music. It is then fortified by the rhythmic tradition of the timba sound, the inherently Cuban subdivision of salsa characterized by its more aggressive beat.

To convey that ramped-up approach, Gomez promises that Tiempo Libre is every bit as visual a stage experience as it is an aural one.

"We jump," he says.

"We dance," he promises.

"We travel to outer space," he swears.

Figuratively speaking, of course?

Gomez laughs. But he doesn't say "Yes."

Which suggests that a Mission Control countdown may be in the offing Friday night.

Gomez says there is so much jumping and leaping going on - gravity-defying measures that are necessary when aiming for the stars - that Tiempo Libre employs its own choreographer to make sure the rocket launches go off on schedule.

On top of all that, "We all do crazy things, too."

He qualifies that statement by promising everything from piano playing "from the floor" to the bass player plucking his strings from a similarly prone position.

Meanwhile, over on the congas, that's where the conga player is sitting … ON his congas.

"The audience has to be prepared to see some very crazy things," he concludes.

"But we don't take off our clothes," he adds, at least drawing the line somewhere.

This livewire audiovisual approach had its first major mainstream coming out party right here in Illinois, curiously enough.

The occasion was the 2002 Ravinia Festival in Chicago's suburban Highland Park. The headliner was Celia Cruz, billed as "Latin Music's First Lady." The crowd was around 12,000. The reception was euphoric.

They wanted more. So Ravinia asked them back in 2003, where the band opened for Aretha Franklin. The crowd had nearly doubled in size from the summer before.

Those Ravinia performances, Gomez says, were crucial to broadening the group's appeal into the heartland and beyond.

It's an encroachment that has continued apace ever since.

Interestingly, Gomez says most of this youthful group's membership was classically trained, including Gomez himself, the son of two classical pianists.

"Everybody started in the same school in Havana around 15 years ago," he says, referring to the Escuela Nacional de Arte (National School of Art).

But there was no tiempo libre in their busy lives just yet.

"While still in Cuba, we all started playing jazz, and then salsa music," he says, followed by a period in which all the musicians went their separate geographical ways, with all roads leading out of Cuba.

One went to Berlin. Another to Mexico. Still another to Italy. And on and on.

Gomez, who was also in the Cuban army, announced to his superiors that he was going to take a leave to visit family members in Guatemala.

The visit never ended.

Until, that is, he wound up in the Miami area, as did, eventually, all the globe-trotting musicians.

The old Havana school chums began reconnecting.

"We were all working in other bands, so we got together to play in our free time on weekends," he recalls of the recreational pastime that bequeathed the band its name.

The goal of this pastime was to mix and match American jazz traditions with Cuban traditions characterized by the legendary Buena Vista Social Club.

After bringing their sounds to the Miami club scene and creating a local fan base, the band began venturing forth into the world, with, as mentioned, the 2002/2003 Ravinia Festival gigs "the big step up."

Tiempo Libre's free-time days soon came to an end as the band became each musician's daytime and nighttime gig. Meanwhile, their performances began expanding globally, from Thailand to Greece and beyond.

"They don't know timba in Asia or Europe, but they like it because it's ecstatic music and jazz is an international language."

As expected from this man who wants to set the whole world doing the timba, "Once you put the timba on a stage, everybody gets up on their seats and starts dancing."

The band's debut CD, "Manos Pa'rrina" ("Hands in the Air") landed them a label contract with world music specialists Shanichie Entertainment.

Their Shanichie debut, 2005's "Arroz con Mango," paid off in a big way with their first Grammy nomination, which landed them in the Best Tropical Latin Album category. They repeated that feat this past year.

When they lost in 2005, "We weren't disappointed because the first time you're nominated, you're still a winner."

As for the second time?

Well, "We weren't even expecting that one (nomination) anyway."

In either case, the Grammy nominations were grounds for partying, something Gomez admits Tiempo Libre isn't exactly opposed to.

At a Tiempo Libre bash, he says you can expect plenty of rum-drinking, considerable cigar-smoking and non-stop dominoes-playing, which is Cuba's national sport.

"We love to play dominoes," he adds.

However, the one thing that dominates a Tiempo Libre party more than anything else is that same one thing Jorge Gomez says he wants to see overtaking the entire planet.

"A LOT of timba dancing."

What: Tiempo Libre

When: 8 p.m. Friday

Where: Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts, 110 E. Mulberry St.

Tickets: $14 to $24.50

Box office number: (866) 686-9541


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