Around the time I sat down to write this, I got a press release announcing that the Latin Project’s first single off their debut album Nueva Musica had hit number one on the Billboard dance charts, which is some of the best news I’ve heard from the music industry in a long time. For one thing, the single, “Lei Lo Lai”, is the first song in years with an ounce of soul to beat out the pack of trance anthems and clunky pop remixes usually vying for the dance chart top spot. For another thing, the band behind it is the real deal, a spectacularly effective juggler of house, jazz and various Latin styles who deserve all the success they’ve had, as they amply demonstrated during two very different shows for very different crowds here in Los Angeles.
The first show was at the Conga Room, the flashy Latin/salsa club co-owned by Jimmy Smits and JLo. Here, for a relatively sparse, sophisticated crowd (read: appreciative but unenthusiastic), Latin Project co-founders Jez Colin and Matt Cooper, assisted by a seven-member band, laid down a remarkably polished set showcasing nine of the ten tracks off their album, plus a superb cover of the Getz/Gilberto classic “Corcovado (Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars)” that proved this group’s dexterity with entirely acoustic material. The rest of the set featured a few samples, synths and programmed beats, but the focus was solidly on live musicianship, highlighted by two excellent lead vocalists, Joel Virgel and Katia Moraes, and the band’s not-so-secret weapon, the virtuosic Matt Cooper. Cooper was the show’s sparkplug, bouncing back and forth between keyboards and drum kit and playing both with furious, joyous precision. He’s a marvel to watch.
The second show was at a relatively new L.A. club called Shelter, as part of a free party sponsored by BPM Magazine (full disclosure: I also write for BPM, though I may not for long if anyone over there ever reads this). Shelter occupies a weird, rambling old house converted into a club space on the eastern edge of the Sunset Strip, the former home of the Coconut Teazer and a legendary afterhours club called Does Your Mama Know? A lot of memorable events have happened there over the years, but truth be told, it was a crappy venue back in the day and it’s still a crappy venue now, with a spiffy new sign and steeper drink prices but nothing else to distinguish it from its old incarnation. It’s low ceilinged, poorly lit and claustrophobic, and had nowhere near enough space to accommodate Latin Project, who had to set up lengthwise down one-half of the club’s puny main room. They were a late addition to the lineup, the sole live act, sandwiched between DJ sets by local vinyl-slingers and members of the Icelandic band Gus Gus, who were the evening’s main attraction.
Yet despite all the obstacles—not enough space, bad sound, technical glitches, a crowd that for the most part didn’t know who the hell they were—the band actually played a better, more entertaining set at Shelter, looser and more engaging than their slick Conga Room performance. This time, Katia and Joel really carried the evening, along with the band’s excellent acoustic guitarist JB Eckl, who was practically sitting in the audience. All three sang and played with infectious warmth and enthusiasm, really drawing the crowd in until by the finale, half the room was engaged in some serious rump-shaking, which is no small feat when you’re playing a cover of George Duke’s jazz samba chestnut “Brazilian Love Affair” for a roomful of mostly white Hollywood types. Cooper was up there pounding away at the skins and the keys, but his presence was less dominant—or at least to me it was, because from where I was standing, you could hardly see him.
What really impresses me about the Latin Project as a live act is that both shows were so different and so good—clearly, this is a group that isn’t so hung up on the electronic aspect of its sound that it can’t improvise a little and adapt the songs to suit the vibe. As a musical unit they have no weak spots—even Francisco Tomaselli, who shared bass duties with Jez Colin at the Conga Room and seemed a little more tentative on his parts, had really settled in by the Shelter show, taking on full bass duties and playing everything with a little more energy and funk than was heard even on the original album versions. Percussionist Joey DeLeon and woodwind player Nathan Haines are exemplary, as well—especially Haines, who’s also a talented crossover jazz/house producer (his track “Earth is the Place” was a big club hit a few years back) and plays atop dance beats with a skill few other sax or flute players can match.
Dance music is a fickle world and has produced more than its fair share of one-hit wonders over the years, so I’d be a fool to make any predictions about the Latin Project’s future success. Which, maybe, is all the more reason why you should seek them out now, while they’re riding high on “Lei Lo Lai” and really at the top of their game. This is one electronic-based act that does not coast along on samples and programmed beats.