When the Pacific Mambo Orchestra received a Grammy nomination for The Best Tropical Latin Album in 2013, it took many people in the music world by surprise — even the musicians in the San Francisco based band. When they went on to win the Grammy, beating out established stars like Marc Anthony and Carlos Vives, they were stunned. "None of us was expecting that," said Steffen Kuehn, the band's trumpet player and co-founder. "We'd formed the band in October of 2010 and things started snowballing."
Pianist and cofounder Christian Tumalan had been offered a Monday Night residency at Café Cocomo, which was the heartbeat of the Latin community at the time. Kuehn and Tumalan took the gig, without having a band.
"Christian and I had been talking about the heyday of Latin big bands in the 50s," Kuehn said. "Tito Puente, Machito and Tito Rodriguez all had orchestras that blended jazz and more commercial sounds. We thought we could find enough players in the Bay Area to take that idea into the 21st Century.
"We started writing arrangements of classics by Celia Cruz, Puente and some of the others, as well as our own tunes. We found 20 musicians and singers and put together the Pacific Mambo Orchestra. We started developing a sound that we hoped could compete with the Latin pop stars. We were hoping we could make it work, financially and artistically."
The band was a hit from the start and its fans began clamoring for an album. "We put together some originals and a few covers and put out our self-titled record on our own label. We were in shock when we got the nomination. Then we won the Grammy, we wondered, 'Where do we go from here?' We made a live album in 2017, Live from Stern Grove, to release some of the pressure we were under."
The band's second album did well, racking up more rave reviews. The orchestra's live shows instantly converted listeners to fans. "About a year ago, we went back to the studio to record a follow up. We decided to create a palette that was as broad as possible — hard-core Latin jazz, straight ahead salsa tunes, romantic boleros, some timba arrangements, covers of hits by Dizzy Gillespie ['Night in Tunisia'] and Chaka Khan ['Through the Fire'] and classical music too. Christian wrote a mambo arrangement for Rachmaninoff's 'Concerto #2 for Piano and Orchestra.' We brought in a string section to play on it."
The new album is called The III Side, a reference to the band's recording history and the third side of the clave, the rhythm that's the core element of all Afro-Cuban music. "It's also a play on the A side and B side of old vinyl albums," Kuehn said. "We wrote a lot of new music for the album. We created arrangements for the covers that draw on the strengths of the band and wrote some originals too. We worked on the recording in the studio for a year, always moving the music forward. Now that Christian and I know what sound we're trying for, and the strengths of the players, we can focus on expanding the music.
"As the recording took shape, it became a true collaboration. Everybody got involved to the max, and beyond," Kuehn said. "As a bandleader, you often have questions about the arrangements and direction, but people shared their expertise in the rehearsals and recording. We've always reached high and far, and never set a limit for ourselves. We want to create an environment where the musicians are challenged and happy.
"At live concerts, we improvise on every tune. All the players come from a jazz background, and spontaneity improves the music, so we strike a balance between the improvisations and the arrangements. It may sound hokey, but there was a spiritual aspect to the process. The music touched everyone who played it and made them want to contribute more. Everyone picked up the vibe of the music and started feeling that spirituality. Everyone in the band is very excited and proud of the results we got on this album."
As the record evolved, several guest artists dropped by to contribute to the tunes. "Jon Faddis plays trumpet on the Dizzy Gillespie tune, 'Night in Tunisia.' Dizzy was Jon's mentor. That's why we have two Dizzy pieces on the record. Dafnis Prieto plays drum kit on 'Tunisia,' He's from Cuba and won a Latin Grammy last year for his big band recording, Back to the Sunset. Herman Olivera, the lead singer from Eddie Palmieri's band, dropped by for 'Omi Yeye,' and the Italian jazz guitarist Alex Britti played on the other Dizzy tune, 'Birke's works.'
"Our engineer, Oscar Autie, got an amazing sound quality out of us. We wanted to bring out all the little details you get when you have a big band. We have a 13-piece horn section, three percussionists, piano, acoustic bass and singers. Sometimes it's hard to define what everyone is doing. He brought clarity to each individual instrument."
Once the recording process was finished, Tumalan took the tracks to his home studio to mix and edit. "I went to his studio a couple of times and watched him work on the sound of individual instruments," Kuehn said. "He'd play with the timbre of a sound, bringing out the brighter or darker aspects of the instrument. One time, I saw him working with the sound of a cowbell. He thought it was too bright and it took hours for him to get the sound just right for the track. He paid attention to every detail."
At Yoshi's, the Pacific Mambo Orchestra is planning to play the new album from start to finish. "We are going to do all nine tracks, with as little talking as possible," Kuehn said. "We'll go onstage and say, 'Good evening, everybody,' and let the music speak for us."
Jan. 2-3, 8 p.m. & 10 p.m., $26-64, Yoshi's, 510 Embarcadero West., Oakland, 510-238-9200, Yoshis.com