Los Gatos Latiz Jazz

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From The Lansing City Pulse (original site link)

Salsa cat strut: Los Gatos

You don’t expect Pete Siers, crack drummer and leader of the Latin jazz combo Los Gatos (The Cats), to get coy on you.

Yet when he describes the dance frenzies that rage in front of Los Gatos Thursday nights at Ann Arbor’s Firefly Club, he sounds like a coquette in a low-cut gown: Gosh, what’s all the fuss about?

“Last night I walked into the club, and before we started there were 70 people waiting for us to hit,” he said. “The energy coming off the dance floor was incredible.”

Los Gatos began as a hip, lounge-ish quintet in the mode of cool-jazz master Cal Tjader, not a dance machine.

“You listen to a lot of modern salsa — three percussionists and a drum set,” Siers said. “It’s too much for me.”

Not that Siers is immune to the dance itch. He was a journeyman drummer in his 20s when he heard bandleader Tito Puente’s landmark “Dancemania” records.

“I was smitten,” he said. “It took me years to figure out how to put something like that together.”

He moved from his native Saginaw to Ann Arbor and started to tap its deep pool of musical talent. The current Los Gatos lineup features Kurt Krahnke on bass and brothers Brian DiBlassio on piano and Al DiBlassio on congas. With Siers, they make up a strong rhythm section, but for many listeners, the distinctive feature of Los Gatos is Gary Kocher’s cool vibraphone sound. In contrast to the band’s superheated Latin rhythms, Kocher’s vibes send ice cubes down your back.

“I didn’t want to do the traditional salsa combination, with a front line of horns,” Siers said. “I was smitten by the old school, small group sound — a lot more jazz influence.”

He calls the approach “low volume, high intensity.”

“I love the openness, sparseness and simplicity,” he said.

LCPlosgatosSiers said the band covered “85 percent” of Tjader’s tunes in its early years; it still plays this ageless material regularly.

However, as the cats grew their claws, they dug in deeper, layering rhythm on rhythm, doubling instruments if necessary. They even started singing.

Now Siers sees the band as a “big machine with five drummers.”

“It’s really high-powered, and we’re all exposed, because we don’t have multiple guys,” he said

When Los Gatos started at Ann Arbor’s Firefly Club, the vibe was less than dance friendly. “The owner wasn’t sure she wanted to break the listening-room feel,” Siers said.

To build a temporary dance floor, Siers cut up furniture desk-chair pads and laid them in a grid over the carpet.

Recently, the club moved to a space with a large tile dance floor. The stage was fully set for dance mania.

“For us, it’s killer,” Siers said. “We can accommodate a lot of folks.”

Now people classify Los Gatos as salsa rather than Latin jazz. “What do those two terms mean?” Siers shrugged. “They’re synonymous to me, but dancers have their own terms.”

In 2006, Los Gatos played Lansing’s JazzFest, stirring the pot as usual. “We played the afterglow, after the last act,” Siers said. “They were just trying to sell some more beer, but it worked. It was a riot. We played until 1 o’clock and it was packed.”

The group is now deep in rehearsal on 15 complex new tunes.

“I love to explore what a quintet can do,” he said. “One of our influences right now is Joe Cuba  (Jose Calderon) and that was a sextet, with bongo and cowbell.”

How many more layers can they pile on before the machine stops running so smoothly?

“That’s the challenge,” Siers said. The toughest part is singing while playing. “The coordination is pretty intense,” he allowed. “I consider the voice a fifth limb.”

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