Ten jazz musicians cram into a modified living room in Henry Brun’s modest home for rehearsal. Brun sprints in with a gourd shaker; Adrian Ruíz, the musical director and trumpet player, anxiously queues the keyboardist, a fellow trumpet player, a saxaphone player, two drummers, a bassist, and of course, Brun on his various percussion instruments to play “Rumba de San Anton.” The deceptively young-looking Travis Davis dashes off a light keyboard intro, joined by René González, a heavy-set percussionist with a leg tattoo, playing that gourd shaker. Then the nine-page arrangement has Davis follow-up with a jarring keyboard break, changing the tempo and key, before resuming the rumba beat. The rhythmn section struggles to recover; the horns come in loud and slightly late. The cacaphony threatens to overpower vocalist Judi Deleón’s smooth Spanish lyrics. Brun instructs González, “When you lose that groove, the settling of the rhythm section becomes uncomfortable.” The musicians back up over and over again to get the transition right between rumba, conjunto, hip-hop, and salsa. It sounds like, well, “a minor train wreck,” as Brun puts it.
Brun’s band, the Latin Playerz, laughs off their leader’s assessment. The song is a decade old, and many of the musicians are playing “Rumba” for the first time. They know it’s only a matter of time before it sounds as polished as the version on their latest album, a celebration of the group’s 20th anniversary. Though difficult, the arrangement also distills into one song the essence of Brun and the Latin Playerz: nods to San Antonio’s conjunto culture, the Latin underpinnings that earned Brun the nickname “Mr. Ritmo” among the upper echeleons of national studio musicians, distinct voices for each musician, a demand that the listener’s hips start swaying. Brun has every intention of playing it for the Latin Playerz anniversary tour kick-off, less than two weeks away.
The Playerz begin the international tour with a benefit show at San Antonio’s Empire Theatre on August 14. Like the album, it’s a retrospective of the wildly diverse sound they have forged over the years. Deleon practices an ambitious gospel song, reflecting her roots as a minister’s daughter in Kingsville; the group breezes through Latin standard “Bésame Mucho” and “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing),” an Afro-Carribbean interpretation of the Duke Ellington classic from the Playerz’ well-received 2009 tribute album to the Big Band composer, which Brun learned that day was on the Latin Grammy shortlist for Best Latin Jazz album. Some songs are in frequent rotation, some are so old only Brun remembers playing them, and some are brand-new.
“That’s what makes this show so different from any other show we do,” says Brun. “It’s pretty ambitious, but I feel good about it.”
Brun has always been ambitious, something he credits to an early teacher’s dismissive assessment of his skills. At some point after Brun began playing congas at age seven in the Bronx — an activity he pursued more seriously when he and his family moved back to their native Puerto Rico — an instructor implied Brun would never be a professional musician. “It gave me the rage to beat the odds,” says the typically cheerful Brun. “Every time I record an album, I think about that one teacher.” And the man’s visited the recording studio more than 650 times for session work and albums. Even at rehearsal, among three dogs, home office, and unfinished house remodeling, Brun displays an innate relationship to the music. Describing one song to the Playerz, he says of the beat, “that’s what forces the horns back there to get mad and they start fighting.”
Brun’s natural approach to music is buttressed by many of the Latin Playerz studied methods. Musical director Ruíz, a 10-year veteran of the Playerz, helps Brun arrange many of the songs. Like Davis, who also assists in arranging, and the group’s youngest player Billy Satterwhite, 21, Ruíz participated in Texas State’s impressive Latin-music program. They and the other seasoned musicians help refine Brun’s intuitive approach. “Basically, he gives me an idea of a tune,” says Ruiz, “and it’s in the embryonic stage. I take that idea and expand on it. In the end it comes to a point where we reach a musical compromise. A lot of material becomes group arrangements.”
The collective input helps keep the Latin Playerz repertoire fresh. A performance may include Afro-Carribbean, R&B, gospel, conjunto, smooth jazz, and merengue. Ruíz, 38, came up playing trumpet for Tejano bands and later the West Side Horns. He met Brun early on in his career. “He used to sneak me into clubs to learn the Latin-jazz style,” Ruíz says. Similarly, Brun introduced Deleón to his beloved Latin jazz. The two met at the CD-release party for a Tejano album she recorded. When he learned of her Mexican-infused roots singing in a South Texas church, she says, “he suggested that I try jazz, because it was almost parallel to a lot of the gospel that I knew.” Deleón joined the band in 1996, and married Brun in 1998. She happily arranges R&B and blues songs, giving the Latin Playerz some of their most surprising covers like Burt Bacharach’s “Say a Little Prayer for You,” and Billie Holiday’s “Lover Man.”
Brun revels in the diversity, and credits much of it to his adopted hometown. Surprisingly, the jolly, hug-friendly Brun arrived here courtesy of a 10-year stint in the U.S. Air Force and chose San Antonio as the location for relaunching his professional musical career with the Latin Playerz. To Brun, it was a natural fit. “You can go on a short trip within San Antonio and hear 10 different styles of music,” he says. Brun refers to the Playerz as the city’s musical ambassador, a boast with legitimate roots in the group’s participation in the Texas Commission on the Arts touring program and international performances in jazz festivals from Houston to Taipei. “When we’re playing our music to the rest of the world, Brun says, “I say this is San Antonio with a side order of salsa.” •
Henry Brun & the Latin Playerz
7:30pm Sat, Aug 14
Charline McCombs Empire Theatre
226 N. St. Mary’s