Camarada Goes Calypso at the Mingei in Balboa Park

Branching out from its customary programming, Beth Ross Buckley’s enterprising Camarada offered a laid-back concert of jazz-tinged calypso Sunday, April 15, at the Mingei International Museum. Considering the musical prowess of the ensemble assembled in the Mingei rotunda—the celebrated brothers Peter and Tripp Sprague, bassist Gunnar Biggs, guitarist Fred Benedetti, percussion maestro Duncan Moore, as well as the charismatic vocalist Gillian Margot—asking them to play an entire evening of calypso songs would be the equivalent of going to a five-star French restaurant and ordering a grilled cheese sandwich.

Beth Ross Buckley [photo courtesy of Camarada]

Fortunately, after the ensemble tipped its hat to the once ubiquitous calypso song “Day O” and the equally catchy “Jamaican Farewell,” Peter Sprague interspersed the program with several of his own sophisticated compositions, flutist Beth Ross Buckley soloed in Duke Ellington’s classic “In a Sentimental Mood,” and Margot unleashed her formidable improvisatory skills in the blues ballad “You Don’t Know What Love Is” by Don Raye and Gene de Paul.

Margot appeared to have way too much fun playing with the clever lyrics of an A-list calypso song “Man Smart, Woman Smarter,” while Tripp Sprague indulged his amazing virtuoso extrapolations of its themes on the baritone saxophone. With her velvet contralto, her perfect Ella Fitzgerald diction, and her magnetic smile, Margot is clearly a force to deal with.

Peter Sprague’s compositions, from the highly syncopated but eminently danceable “Ensenada” to the snappy, ironic “Hurricane Alley” and “Cali Calypso,” balanced the breezy calypso ballads with welcome depth and complexity. Kudos to the numerous impressive soloists in Sprague’s works, including Duncan Moore’s classy opening drum riffs in “Cali Calypso” and Fred Benedetti’s uncannily believable steel drum imitation from his electric guitar in the same piece.

In “Hurricane Alley,” the Sprague brothers engaged in friendly competition to create the most elaborate, acrobatic solo cadenza–Peter on guitar and Tripp on bari sax–but the listeners were the real winners, relishing the experience of their side by side creative invention.

The cherry on top of this calypso confection was Gillian Margot’s tongue in cheek romp through “Monkey Song,” a humorous outing by Norman Span and Irving Burgie that Harry Belafonte popularized in the early 1960s. In addition to Margot’s arch vocal antics, Ross Buckley on piccolo and Tripp Sprague on flute added a sparkling duo ritornello.

Camarada’s program titled “Calypso Heat” was presented on April 15, 2018, at the Mingei International Museum in San Diego’s Balboa Park. Camarada’s next concert is slated for April 28, 2018, at Bread and Salt in Barrio Logan.

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