You rarely find a jazz conga player at the helm of his own group: Poncho Sanchez and Mongo Santamaria are the only well-known modern examples, and a historical search turns up only a couple more, like the pioneering Chano Pozo, who occasionally fronted a band during the bebop era. Not that this scarcity should be surprising. Despite (or perhaps because of) their distinctive color, the congas usually fulfill a strictly secondary function in jazz, even within a rhythm section; it makes sense for a bandleader to play an instrument more essential to the genre, such as--well, just about anything else. But in the bands led by Puerto Rican conguero Giovanni Hidalgo, the congas assume a role every bit as vital as that played by the trap set (or even the piano) in other combos. Hidalgo displays breathtaking technique and astonishing rhythmic inventiveness, especially on his polyrhythmic solos, which virtually crackle with precision and energy. But he can offer even more than splashy improvising and colorful comping: he completely commands the rhythm section, dictating tempo and meter, directing the placement of montuno vamps and other devices, and even goosing the horn men with the smart accents that great jazz drummers use to frame and shape other players' solos. Indeed, on many of his recordings--and in the sextet he brings to Chicago--Hidalgo does away with the trap set entirely, a gambit few previous congueros have had the skill or daring to attempt. Though he has a handful of recent releases, including a miserably documented "best of" disc from 1998, Hidalgo hasn't recorded an album with a group of his own since the sparkling Time Shifter, which came out way back in '95--which means that this performance ought to provide a long-overdue answer to the question of whether he can live up to the standard he set as a bandleader in the 80s and early 90s. This lineup features three longtime Hidalgo compatriots--bassist Eddie Rivera, percussionist Carlos Rodriguez, and the sensational trumpeter David "Piro" Rodriguez--along with a pianist and guitarist. Saturday, February 23, 9 PM, HotHouse, 31 E. Balbo; 312-362-9707.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Jackson.