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Conga line heads back upstairs with La Cuchina in Rodale Room

The Jazz Series at Miller Symphony Hall moved back upstairs to the Rodale Community Room for the first time in more than two years since the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic shutdown.

It has the perfect band for the return: La Cuchina, 7:30 p.m. June 17.

The smaller venue, compared to the main stage hall, where the series had been relocated, brings La Cuchina close to the audience, letting the group’s energy fill the room with music that combines jazz improvisation with an infectious rhythm and spirit.

Bill Washer says La Cuchina has a “fun and exciting mix of fusion and Latin that is like dance music. People come to dance.” Washer will play electric guitar in the concert.

Many bands have played at the Deer Head Inn, a Shawnee-on-Delaware, Monroe County, venue well-known to jazz fans, but La Cuchina is probably the only group that generated a conga line, a tradition the group began there.

In the Rodale Room concert, the group was expected to do a few originals and even cover the 1950s’ R&B song, “Honky Tonk,” says Vinny Bianchi, who plays tenor sax in the group.

La Cuchina’s concerts include tunes by Grover Washington Jr., Gato Barbieri and Chuck Mangione.

“I learned a lot from them, and I always wanted to do their music myself. I love this music, but I didn’t hear anyone playing it when I was gigging. I was either backing up vocalists or playing bebop,” says Bianchi in a phone interview from his home in Marshalls Creek, Monroe County.

Bianchi has worked with many area musicians, including Washer and Paul Rostock, La Cuchina’s electric bassist.

“Eleven years ago, I thought it would be great to get all these guys together,” Bianchi says.

The cover tunes by La Cuchina might be called “smooth jazz,” but it is a term Bianchi hesitates to use, as do many musicians who play in a popular, accessible style. “Smooth” does not mean the music is bland or simplified. “Jazz means so many different things to people,” says Bianchi.

His passion for the saxophone flourished when he was at Rhode Island College, Providence, R.I., where he switched his major from English to music. He has lived in Marshalls Creek for about 30 years.

Bianchi compares himself to a vocalist as he emphasizes the melody of a song. There is a lot of funk in the band’s sound, and a Latin feel with the combined rhythms of Danny Gonzalez, drums and percussion, and Ruben Ariola, conga and percussion. “We want people to move their feet,” Bianchi says.

Bianchi is the only member of the band who has not previously performed in Miller Symphony Hall. Washer and Rostock were in the most recent jazz concert there with the Rob Stoneback Big Band.

La Cuchina has performed in the Lehigh Valley only one time, as the closing act at the Christmas City Jazz Festival in Bethlehem in 2018. The group has a loyal following for its concerts in the Delaware Water Gap[ area, doing about 30 concerts a year pre-COVID. The group has performed nearly 30 times at the Deer Head Inn and will be back there July 15.

The group has performed at the annual Celebration of the Arts Festival in Delaware Water Gap, most recently last year for the 43rd event.

Tickets: Miller Symphony Hall box office, 23 N. Sixth St., Allentown; www.millersymphonyhall.org ; 610-432-6715

Vinny Bianchi