When Pablo Mayor completed his post-graduate studies in the top-notch jazz music program at the University of North Texas, the Queens-based composer/pianist fully intended to lead a modern jazz orchestra of his own. But his plans changed dramatically after a trip home to Colombia, where he reconnected with the cumbia rhythms of his youth.
The dynamic sound of Orquesta de Lucho Bermúdez, which innovatively incorporated the folkloric sound of rural Colombia in an Ellingtonian big- band concept in the mid-40s, had long been an important touchstone for Mayor, but it wasn't until he returned to Bogotá that he hit on the idea for Folklore Urbano - an 11-piece jazz orchestra built for the dance floor.
"I loved the music of Lucho Bermúdez, but I was searching for something new, at least a different way of presenting the traditional rhythms of Colombia. From an early age, I also listened to a lot of Latin music, particularly Sonora Matancera, Beny Moré and Orquesta Broadway, but also the bands of Eddie and Charlie Palmieri."
Later, at university, he was exposed to the whole history of jazz music and found the big band writing and arranging of Count Basie and especially Thad Jones very inspiring.
"All of those influences helped to shape my vision of what Folklore Urbano would become when I started working with musicians in New York."
The all-important sense of swing that Mayor picked up from the recordings of Basie and Jones while studying in Texas arranging for UNT's celebrated lab bands has carried over to Folklore Urbano's spirited recordings, as can be heard on 2005's boisterous Baile/Dance (Chonta) disc.
However harmonically complex Mayor's charts may get, his super-tight crew keep things light and bubbly without getting cheesy. That's nowhere near as easy as Folklore Urbano make it sound.
"One important thing I learned in analyzing the work of the truly great composer/musicians was that they were always able to write happy tunes that were compositionally solid. It's much easier to write something that's dark - anybody can do it - but creating something with a happy feeling that isn't cheesy or trite is a real challenge. I talk about this same thing with my students in the arranging classes I teach here at the Brooklyn-Queens Conservatory.
"If we, as performing musicians, believe we have a responsibility to bring a positive energy to our audiences, then we should be able to write and play music with simple, memorable melodies that can carry a good feeling. It takes some work to write a song that makes people feel better about themselves, but I think we need to make that effort."
The other key challenge for Mayor is finding an audience that's ready to dance to Folklore Urbano's jazzy hybrid of cumbia and salsa, which seems to have a way of befuddling fans of both styles of music, even those from Colombia.
"There's a part of me that really wants Colombian people to like this music, and some definitely do. But there are others who find the progressions just too complex to dance to. I suppose if we played straight cumbia or vallenato stuff we'd be a lot more popular with the Colombian audience, but that's not what we do.
"Last night we were playing in Chicago, and I knew there were a lot of people from Colombia in the crowd, but for the first couple of songs, no one would get out of their seats. They applauded enthusiastically after each tune, so it seemed like they didn't hate what we were doing, but after the third song I began to wonder if the dance floor was going to remain empty the whole night.
"Then two people got up to dance, and soon more followed. By the end of the evening, the entire place was dancing. It turned out to be a great night. I guess sometimes it just takes a while for people to warm up to our sound."