Think of the Pacific Mambo Orchestra as party insurance. Booking this 19-piece Latin band offers a guarantee that an event will attain the heat necessary for a dance floor conflagration. At least that seems to be the thinking of some South Bay festival planners who know their way around a bandstand.

A recent addition to the Bay Area big band scene, the PMO plays Saturday at the Gordon Biersch Big Bands and BBQ 25th Celebration, sandwiched between the San Jose Jazz Festival All Star Big Band, featuring vocalist Kenny Washington and drummer Tommy Igoe, and Carlos Reyes and his Super Group with Santana vocalist Tony Lindsay. They're back down the Peninsula on June 1 as part of KCSM's revived Jazz on the Hill celebration and perform at the SFJazz Center on June 15.

"I'm big on promoting local musicians," says Gordon Biersch's Dan Gordon, an avid trombonist. "Carlos Reyes is an amazing musician and should be far better known. The Pacific Mambo Orchestra is a fantastic band that's starting to get known outside the Bay Area.

"And Kenny Washington, who's also going to sing with Pacific Mambo, is good enough to play with Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York City, but here he's considered part of the local scene."

Beyond Washington, there's a good deal of cross-pollination between the bands on the Gordon Biersch program, with several musicians doing double or even triple duty. Instead of stoking competition between bands, overlapping personnel is a sign of camaraderie on a scene that's not making anyone rich.


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Trumpeter Stephen Kuehn and pianist Christian Tumalan, who co-founded and run the PMO, are both also members of drummer Brian Andres' Afro-Cuban Jazz Cartel, another impressive recent addition to the Bay Area Latin music scene.

"I think that's what makes the Bay Area a special place," says Kuehn, who also plays in the hard-charging big band led by drummer Igoe.

"We're all very appreciative and very supportive. I don't feel competition. I kind of used to, but I guess I grew up. It came to the point where it's a family. We see how the veteran cats like Wayne Wallace, John Santos and John Calloway all support each other, and now we have a support system like they have."

Kuehn, who was born and raised in Germany, and Tumalan, a conservatory-trained pianist from Mexico, launched the PMO in the fall of 2010 when San Francisco's Cafe Cocomo hired them for a Monday night gig. Kuehn had long wanted to start a Latin big band and had already acquired some charts from New York trumpeter Michael Mossman (whose credits include stints with Machito, Maurio Bauza and Jazz at Lincoln Center's Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra with Arturo O'Farrill), but had to hustle to pull everything together.

"We had the gig and six weeks to assemble the musicians," Kuehn recalls. "We started transcribing like crazy. From the beginning, we decided not to do a Latin Jazz big band, but to go more commercial and focus on singers. Our first night, we had 19 people on the bandstand and three people in the audience."

That inauspicious start soon gave way to a bustling dance floor, but the daunting economics of running a big band meant it was always a struggle. The band has been fueled by the musicians, who have used it as a showcase for orchestral arranging, with impressive original material brought in by band members like baritone saxophonist Aaron Lington and trombonist Mike Rinta. The band released an eponymous album last year that has received stellar reviews.

"The guys got really excited about that orchestra and started saying 'let me write something for the band,' " Kuehn says. "Aaron showed up with the first original. But by 2012, we started to get burned out a bit on the club dates. After the album came out, we went for other bookings, particularly jazz festivals. You have all the excitement in the beginning, then the reality sets in."

For Gordon, opening Gordon Biersch provided an opportunity to indulge his love of jazz. He's presented music at the Palo Alto restaurant from the start and continued the music policy when the second brewpub opened in San Jose, turning it into an important South Bay outpost for some of the region's finest improvisers.

He cites the strong history of music education in the Bay Area, as seeding the region with musicians "developing talent that's unreal," Gordon says.

"A lot of players went on the road and then came back here. The talent that's available is just amazing, and we're thrilled to be able to present some of them."

PACIFIC MAMBO ORCHESTRA

Gordon Biersch Big Bands and BBQ 25th Celebration

When: 2-7 p.m. Saturday
Where: Gordon Biersch,
357 E. Taylor St., San Jose
Tickets: $10, www.gordonbiersch.com/brewery