Though he no longer lives in the San Francisco Bay area, mambo king Pete "Pops" Escovedo's music is deeply entrenched in its heritage. Recorded at the Stern Grove Festival in July of 2012, Escovedo's big band and some special guests pulled out all the stops in a program of Latin jazz classics and standards. Co-produced by Escovedo and his daughter, drummer/percussionist extraordinaire Sheila E., the set cooks from the opening moments of "Picadillo Jam," by Escovedo's hero Tito Puente. Escovedo's sons, Juan and Peter Michael, are in the band on congas and drums respectively. They contribute mightily to these proceedings as does pianist Joe Rotondi and the five-piece horn section. The band's articulation of Escovedo's charts, and their enthusiasm for the material, is evident from the opening moments of "Picadillo Jam" (composed by Escovedo's idol, Tito Puente). The horn arrangement is full of color, rich in dynamics, and accents the deep, earthy grooves put forth by both the percussionists and bassist Marc van Wageningen. There are some special guests appearances on the set. Ray Obiedo appears on guitar on "Brasileiro," one of two of his compositions performed here. Arturo Sandoval joins the horn section as a soloist on "Suenos de los Torreros," while Dave Koz's saxophone graces Obiedo's other tune, "True or False." The lone Escovedo original is a burning, Latin jam called "Dance," that melds mambo and salsa to modern big-band jazz. The reading of fellow Bay Area Latin jazz explorer Wayne Wallace's "Take Some Time" showcases the true richness of Escovedo's charts. The swinging horns offer beautiful individual timbral contrasts even as they play in unison. Michael Angel Alvarado's electric guitar comps and vamps are complemented by contrasting lilting and biting fills inside that swing, and the drummers and bassist pop in from the margins to generate heat. "Solo Tu" is a wonderful showcase for Sheila E.'s considerable conga skills. She takes the cake with her fluid, polyrhythmic grooves that are as elegant as they are meaty. The only rough spot on the set is "Fly Me to the Moon," on which the bandleader takes the lead vocal. Let's just say his pipes have sounded better, but he can still swing -- and he clearly loves Tony Bennet. But this is a minor complaint on an otherwise excellent set. Live from Stern Grove is modern Latin big-band jazz at its very best.
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AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek