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Lagniappe (Times-Picayune), Friday October 10, 2003 - Music

THEIR OWN SPIN
Otra's Latin sound aims to be 'a little grittier, earthier and funkier'

by Keith Spera, Music Writer

As a student at Slidell High School in the 1980's, bassist Sam Price pledged his allegiance to hard rock. Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix and Kiss made up the bulk of his musical diet.

Then he and classmate Todd Duke, a guitarist with similar tastes, discovered community jazz and roots-music radio station WWOZ-FM, and everything changed. So enamored were Price and Duke with WWOZ that they embarked on a pilgrimage across Lake Pontchartrain one night to find the station in Armstrong Park.

"Our ears were blown open," Price said recently. "Our whole world expanded just by listening to the great deejays on 'OZ."

His discovery of WWOZ triggered a musical conversion from hard rock to jazz and, eventually, Latin music. The process culminated last year when he founded Otra, an "Afro-Cuban jazz and groove" band staffed with both jazz and Latin musicians. They included veteran percussionists Humberto "Pupi" Memes and Cristobal "El Canyon" Cruzado, plus jazz saxophonist Brent Rose, trumpeter Eric Lucero and keyboardist Rob Block. Otra performs Saturday at Cafe Brasil, makes its Snug Harbor debut on Sunday, then joins Almas Gemelas and Avatar for a Mo' Tunes showcase at the Howlin' Wolf on Wednesday.

The path Price followed to Otra was not a direct one. After graduating from Slidell High in 1987, he served a three-year hitch in the Army. He then moved to New Orleans and enrolled at the University of New Orleans. Juggling classes, a job and nighttime gigs proved too much, so he left UNO to focus on music. He gigged with rock, funk and blues bands, including The Desires, the Marc Stone Band, Irene Sage, Rockin' Jake, the New World Funk Ensemble and Smilin' Myron.

Then he received a call from Ray Moore, the leader of the Brazilian band Brasilliance. Could Price do some gigs? "I'd never played Latin music," Price said. "Ray said, "I don't care. We just need a bass player. SHow up, and we'll teach you how.' So I stumbled into playing Latin music by virtue of being a bass player in a city that, at the time, was low on bass players."

And thus began Price's education. "Initially, the most obvious thing is learning how to feel the syncopation of Latin music," he said. "The bass almost never plays on the one (beat). Typically you're emphasizing the four and the end of two. It just takes a little while to adjust, especially when you grew up a white kid in the suburbs listening to Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin and banging your head on one and three.

"But right from the beginning, I was intrigued by the feeling of that syncopation. And once I saw it written out on paper, it connected with the feeling, and it clicked. It had me, from that point on."

With Brasilliance, Brazilian music reigned supreme. Eventually, Price also fell under the spell of Cuban music. He became more fluent via gigs with Fuego, Elegant Gypsy, Acoustic Swiftness, percussionist Hector Gallardo's Impulso and vocalist Fredy Omar's band. In the spring of 2002, he assembled his own Latin jazz band and named it Otra, Spanish for "other." It would avoid the overplayed standards of the Latin repertoire in favor of original music approached in a unique way.

"I love jazz and instrumental, improvised music. I wanted to get into that area, where you're able to be in that groove that feels so good and makes people dance, but at the same time, you're able to deal with some interesting, challenging music and improvise. To me, that seemed like the best of both worlds."

To that end, he sough musicians capable of playing both modern jazz and Latin music, not necessarily fixtures on the local Latin scene. Rob Block, who taught jazz at Webster University in St. Louis, had recently arrived in town. He became Otra's pianist, and composes much of its material. Saxophonist Brent Rose and trumpeter Eric Lucero are bandmates in jazz-groove band Have Soul Will Travel and the avant-jazz Naked Orchestra.

Price also recruited two long-tie veterans of the local Latin scene. Cuban-born percussionist "Pupi" Menes launched his career in Miami in the 1960's. Since moving to New Orleans, he's contributed tumbadora, bongo and chekere to many bands, including Fredy Omar's. Born in Columbia, Cristobal Cruzado has spent the last 39 years playing drums and timbales in New Orleans, including 14 years as the drummer in Chris Owens' house band on Bourbon Street. Price coaxed Cruzado out of retirement to play timbales in Otra.

Together, Menes and Cruzado form the percussive backbone of Otra. The group's repertoire favors instrumentals, with the occasional chorus; samples can be hears at www.otramusic.com. Otra is finishing its debut CD, "Todo Pa'La Gente" ("Everything for the People"), for release later this fall.

"We're trying to acknowledge the roots of the music, but (play) a little grittier, earthier and funkier," Price said. "Play with intensity and passion. We want to set us apart from everything else going on in the Latin scene in New Orleans. We're trying to do something different, to approach the music in an original way."

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