From its inception some two decades ago in East Los Angeles, the Chicano band Quetzal has thrived by casting a wide net, gathering sounds and rhythms from sources folkloric and funky.
New influences often cycle in via an ever-expanding cast of players and the evolving musical interests of the band's founders, vocalist-percussionist Martha Gonzalez and Quetzal Flores, whose string arsenal includes guitar and Veracruz staples like the jarana jarocha, requinto jarocho and bajo sexto.
The latest twist in the band's sound might be its most engaging and beautiful yet. Last year Quetzal's gorgeous string-powered session blending cumbia, Afro-Cuban grooves and smooth R&B, "Imaginaries" (Smithsonian Folkways), earned the group its first Grammy Award (for best Latin rock, urban or alternative album).
The sextet arrives in the Bay Area this weekend for a series of gigs fresh off the release of a vivid and wildly imaginative new concept album "Quetzanimales" (Artivist), performing Saturday at the Blackbird Tavern, Sunday afternoon at the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival in San Francisco and Sunday night at Moe's Alley in Santa Cruz.
In many ways the new project distills the translucent sound introduced on "Imaginaries," a buoyant sonic mix built upon the prodigious string tandem of violinist Tylana Renga Enomoto and cellist Peter Jacobson.
"When Peter comes into the fold, we imagined a whole other sound," says Flores, whose father is a community organizer long active in the Chicano movement. "We were heading there with 'Imaginaries.' Half the album doesn't have a drum set. We create space for everything, so naturally when the cello came in we made sure that each voice has a lot of space around it. An instrument like the cello often gets lost in the mix. It's there more for presence and texture than for playing melodies, but in Quetzal the cello plays a huge part."
The band recently added a new drummer, Caitlin Moss, a supple jazz-inflected player who performs with several highly creative Southland combos, including the rising Afro-Caribbean singer-songwriter collective Cuicani. But the defining sonic elements of this incarnation of Quetzal are unmistakably Enomoto and Jacobson, who started working as a duo five years ago in Concentr8s. Busking on the streets of L.A., they honed a vast and varied repertoire encompassing David Bowie, J Dilla, Mulatu Astatke, Astor Piazzolla, Mozart and Neil Young. When not working with Quetzal they continue to perform in Concentr8s, now a trio with drums focusing on original music.
"When you have string players who have spent tons of time together, that really does make a huge difference," Flores says. "That means we can think of the strings as lead instruments. These strings just come right out at you. And when we play older material, it's almost like a new composition."
Part of what's always set Quetzal apart is the band's potent combination of instrumental prowess, commitment to community and intellectual curiosity. Drawing on the traditions of Veracruz, where the Afro-Mexican style of son jarocho arose, Quetzal has helped spearhead a movement bringing the music to Los Angeles via community celebrations, or fandangos.
Flores and Gonzalez, who are married and have a son, relocated to Seattle from 2007 to 2012 while she earned her doctorate in gender, women and sexuality studies from the University of Washington. With the support of a Fulbright Scholarship and Ford Foundation Dissertation Fellowship, she turned her research project focusing on women in son jarocho into the CD compilation "Entre Mujeres: Feminine Translocal Music Composition."
The band's preoccupation with urban identities and dislocation surfaced again in "Quetzanimales," a deeply playful and intriguingly allegorical album inspired by animals living in the midst of the metropolis. The concept sprang from tales Quetzal bassist Juan Perez liked to tell about a homeless man living near a downtown L.A. freeway who trained a pigeon to take seeds out of his mouth and hands. Rife with bilingual puns and wordplay, "Quetzanimales" contains an urban menagerie with songs like "Hormiguitas Divinas," "Coyote Hustle" and "Perro Caliente."
"We were really struck by Juan's stories about these two beings that have been systematically rejected and beaten down by the metropolis, and yet they find themselves bonded," Flores says. "The animals do become metaphors for the human experience, but for the most part we're singing about them and looking at what we can learn in terms of coexisting and being tolerant of one another."
Contact Andrew Gilbert at firstname.lastname@example.org.
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Where: Blackbird Tavern, 200 S. First St., San Jose
Also: 1 p.m. Sunday, Yerba Buena Gardens Festival concert series, on Mission between Third and Fourth streets, San Francisco, free, http://ybgfestival.org; 8:30 p.m. Sunday, Moe's Alley, 1535 Commercial Way, Santa Cruz, $10-$15, 831-479-1854, www.moesalley.com