Chicago Sun-Times Tuesday, November 30, 1993
When Susie Hansen performs at the Green Mill tonight, she will be in a different artistic guise then she used to be in in her native Chicago. Since moving to Los Angeles in 1988, the electric violinist has made quite a name for herself as a Latin jazz bandleader--a serious departure from playing swing standards in hotel lobbies and ballrooms.
"I was turning more and more into a society bandleader, which paid well but didn't satisfy me," said Hansen. "I moved partly out of a sense of adventure, but also to give myself a real chance to do creative music."
Judging by her new debut album, "Solo Flight," the first release on the small Jazz Caliente label, she made the most of that chance. Leading a nine-piece ensemble on mostly original compositions, she brings a light, refined, vigorously swinging touch to traditional forms such as the charanga.
With their pop-flavored vocals and arrangements, songs such as "Beautiful Maria of My Soul" (a ballad from the "Mambo Kings" movie) also reveal a winning commercial touch.
"I really thought when I went out to L.A. that I would play more straight-ahead jazz," said Hansen, who also led a bop band in Chicago. "But three months after I got there, I started playing salsa and Latin jazz and never looked back. I just love everything about it. It puts you in the best mood."
Hansen, whose Latin jazz band has been together for four years, is familiar with forks in the road. The daughter of the late Chicago Symphony Orchestra violinist James Hansen, she was schooled from a young age in music, but she was headed toward a career in the sciences with her master's degree in electrical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
A jam session with friends after graduation helped change that. After recharging her chops with jazz and classical lessons and dabblings in rock and folk, she stuck with it. Considering the career obstacles for a woman in jazz and one who plays the electric violin and an ethnic outsider to Afro-Cuban music, her success is even more impressive.
Fate fixed her up on a blind date with Latin jazz: at the 1986 Taste of Chicago, her bop band preceded local maestro Victor Parra's Mambo Express All-Stars. He had just fired his violinist. After hearing Hansen, he convinced her she would be a terrific replacement. She hadn't played Latin music much before, but rose to the challenge.
After countless hours listening to and researching the genre, and playing in various salsa and Latin jazz bands in Los Angeles, she gradually developed her own combustible approach.
"The violin has been an important part of traditional Latin Music," said Hansen. "Mongo (Santamaria), Ray Barretto and Tito Puente all have used one at various times. I take the music to a different place: My voice is more like a trumpet. With a violin, tenor and trombone, we have a special kind of horn section."
At the Green Mill, Hansen will lead an octet including Jesus Enriquez on vocals, Chevere veteran Steve Eisen on sax and flute, Tony Morales on trombone, Edwin Sanchez on piano, "Solo Flight" co-producer Mike Rivera on bass, Joe Rendon on congas and Mark Walker on drums.
Susie Hansen; 9 tonight; Green Mill Jazz Club, 4802 N. Broadway; $6; (312) 878-5552