Severinsen finds his gypsy in latest band

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
By Tom Strini

Doc Severinsen moved to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, in 2007 to retire. Then he had dinner at an Italian restaurant, where violinist Pedro Cartas and guitarist Gil Gutierrez were playing.

“I dropped my fork and my spoon and everything else,” Severinsen said, from the site of a second home he’s building just outside San Miguel de Allende. “I couldn’t believe what these guys were doing.”

Thus began a chain of events leading to a concert set for Friday at Milwaukee’s Pabst Theater. Trumpeter Severinsen, Cartas, Gutierrez, percussionist Miguel Favero and bassist Gilberto Gonzalez will play a benefit for the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music’s new Jazz Institute.

They call the band El Ritmo de la Vida. They were here in September, as a featured act with the Milwaukee Symphony Pops. Severinsen, of course, was the MSO’s principal pops conductor from 1994 to 2007. By all accounts, that show went very well.

But the Pops show, with a full orchestra in tow, required arrangements and constricted the band somewhat. The Pabst concert will be closer to the group’s Italian restaurant show.

Yes, Doc – who will turn 82 on July 7, who became a household name after decades on the “The Tonight Show” – plays three or four nights a week in a restaurant in Mexico.

“I’m the only one who doesn’t get paid,” he said.

From the name (“The Rhythm of Life”) and the makeup of the band, you might think they specialize in Latin jazz. Actually, they’re eclectic. A lot of jazz standards are in their repertoire, and the influence of French gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt and violinist Stephane Grappelli is apparent in the playing o  Gutierrez and Cartas. You can hear a wonderful, and very Hot Club of France, treatment of “Sweet Georgia Brown” at the Ritmo Web site.

“Almost everything we do has some sort of a gypsy feel,” Severinsen said. “We never write anything down. We just play, and it takes us a long time to settle on how the music will go. We just kind of arrive there.”

Severinsen’s connections got the band the Pops jobs and North American tours, but he is a band member, not the star of the show. That’s the way he wants it.

“Gil and Pedro – they’re the originals,” he said. “They’ve played together for 22 years, and they have their own following. They don’t speak much English, and when I first went up to them all I got were blank stares. They had no idea who I was.”

One of them is married to an American, who filled them in on Doc’s history. That quickly led to an invitation to sit in on an album that was in progress at the time. The fellow who owns the tiny recording studio in Mexico where they made that album is now the sound technician on their tours.

The recording session led to a standing invitation to play at the restaurant.

“It took me six months to get up the nerve to do that,” Severinsen said. “I’ve been practicing more than I have in years, just to get ready for these guys. You’d be surprised at how often it hits me, when I’m sitting there playing, that I’m having more fun than I’ve ever had in my life. I still can’t get over it.”

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