The Bellevue Jazz Festival May 23 and 24 got off to a slow start, but the Spanish Harlem Orchestra came with enough energy for all the festivalgoers; jazz review by Paul de Barros.

Jazz Review |

Things looked dicey Saturday evening for the Bellevue Downtown Association’s ambitious revival of the Bellevue Jazz Festival.

But at the eleventh hour, a wildly enthusiastic salsa dance crowd suddenly materialized for the Spanish Harlem Orchestra, the second-night main-stage show, in the downstairs hall of the Meydenbauer Center. The festival took place Friday and Saturday.

Couples dressed to the nines packed a temporary dance floor at the center of the room, stepping stately through cha-chas, mambos and danzones, or slow-dancing to a romantic bolero. A shout out from pianist and music director Oscar Hernández revealed a crowd from all over the Latin America and beyond — Colombia, Venezuela, Panama and Brooklyn.

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The SHO, which specializes in classic ’70s salsa, played a terrific, nearly-two-hour, nonstop show — precise, lively and bristling with variety. Though crackerjack instrumentalists like Hernández, trombonist Jimmy Bosch and baritone sax and flute man Mitch Frohman drove the music, its front line of singers — Ray De La Paz, Marco Bermudez and Willie Torres — were the obvious attraction.

Dancing choreographed steps with un-self-conscious grace, the three traded lead vocals, as the other two chattered choruses in nasal harmony. Bermudez’s speed-talking original, “Que Bonito” was a highlight, as were Hernández’s cha-cha “Pa’ Gozar,” De La Paz’s steamy rendition of the Celia Cruz hit, “Ahora Si” and the extended descarga (jam) on the Joe Cuba classic, “Ariñañara.”

Friday’s show by Branford Marsalis show was workmanlike, occasionally inspired, but the saxophonist set an unfortunate tone by kicking off the evening with a snide remark about playing a “dinner show.” He apparently misperceived the room’s banquet-table setup (only drinks and light hors d’oeuvres were served).

But his comment spoke to an image problem facing the Bellevue festival. The Meydenbauer Center, though its acoustics were excellent, felt more corporate than festive, and the U-shaped hotel driveways and palm-court atria of the city’s car-oriented street fronts are more like Beverly Hills than New Orleans.

Lloyd’s vision of the new fest as an urban downtown event, packed with revelers, clearly poses challenges. A quick turn through the other venues — the Vertigo Lounge, the Cypress Lounge, the Twisted Cork Wine Bar and the Hyatt Regency Wintergarden — revealed scant crowds, few festivalgoers and deserted streets.

At a festival-capping jam session at the Rock Bottom Brewery — which drew no one but musicians — BDA president Leslie Lloyd said she was nonetheless happy with the outcome and planned to move ahead into year two.

About 500 fans showed up for the SHO, 700 for Friday’s concert by Marsalis.

“I’m just over the moon,” she said. “The notion was to start small, and I’m very pleased.”

Paul de Barros: 206-464-3247 or pdebarros@seattletimes.com