Don’t judge a book by its cover. That sage advice applies to Little Havana, a transformed warehouse at 1325 Key Highway that began in 1997 as a Cuban-themed restaurant and has evolved into a Federal Hill landmark. It’s a near neighbor to the Baltimore Museum of Industry and features an outdoor dining option that looks out over the Inner Harbor. Presently, its central interior space resembles those ubiquitous family-friendly sports bars– mirrors, TVs, bar stools– but its menu retains some authentic Latin charm. The black bean soup, for instance, is superb with a side order of contemporary jazz in the adjoining Hemingway Room.
Twisting hallways present no problem since the welcoming waitstaff eagerly directs newcomers to the somewhat secluded live music site. Available for private rental, the Hemingway Room is a smallish chamber that seats about 60 patrons with additional table seating outdoors on a gravelly patio and courtyard that can accommodate many more. On a pleasant end-of-October evening, the room was mostly filled but the patio was empty.
A Halloween theme suffused the affair. There were a few costumed patrons, some decorative grab bags and even a magician– Adam Stone– who performed uncanny card tricks to the delight of the credulous at neatly covered tables variously arranged to suit one large group, and smaller combinations. Later, Stone doubled as the on-stage voice for a Vincent Price-like spooky narration.
Music was provided by “L-Avate,” an ensemble led by saxophonist Lionel Lyles, with Parris Spivey on electric guitar, Justin Taylor on Fender Rhodes keyboard, Ernest Abdul-Raheem on bass guitar, Tyler Leak on drums, and guest performances by vocalist Geneva Renee and spoken word artist Andrew Jackson. As evidenced by the lead-off tune– Herbie Hancock’s “Butterfly”– this group’s element is funky jazz/rock fusion.
Lyles is the same well-regarded saxophonist who fronts “LLQ” (The Lionel Lyles Quintet) and has performed with his more traditional jazz group (repertoire includes “standards”) at many local venues, including this one. Lyles explained that this alternate focus is required by his diversified approach to music. As the diplomats say, it’s sometimes necessary to drink from two cups.
This show was part of the Fall season of the Hemingway Room Jazz Series presented by The Sonic Lifeline, an entertainment promotion and production group whose “shared mission,” according to a written statement, “is to meticulously craft artist-centric experiences that not only captivate audiences but also foster community through the power of live performances.” The ongoing series has featured other local standouts, including trumpeter Brandon Woody, vibraphonist Warren Wolf, and the precocious Dorsey siblings: Ephraim (tenor sax) and Ebban (alto sax).
“People Make The World Go Round,” an R&B classic by the Stylistics, featured Lyles’s tenor sax statement of the melody in the manner of a middle tempo ballad that yielded to a funky drum beat before a head-bobbing bass line took the lead on a solo break. Abdul-Raheem sounded like bass guitarist “Bootsy” Collins, who put the funk in the group Funkadelic, masters of the genre. Here and elsewhere, Spivey’s electric guitar grabbed attention with piercing rock licks reminiscent of legendary British guitarist Jeff Beck (1944-2023). All the while, amplified keyboard vamping modulated the thumping vibe.
“Just The Two Of Us,” a fluffy tune recorded by saxophonist Grover Washington, Jr. with Bill Withers, brought a clinging couple to their feet in a swaying embrace and “Can We Talk,” an R&B love song that continued in the same vein, featured sultry interjections from vocalist Geneva Renee. A spoken word offering set to a bluesy rhythm by Andrew Jackson reminded me of Gil Scott-Heron (1949-2011), the brooding black poet turned R&B artist, who was an oracle to many in his generation. A precursor to hip-hop, one of Scott-Heron’s most popular “rapping” songs is entitled “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.”
In keeping with the Halloween theme, the two hour set closed with a screeching rendition of “Thriller,” a mega-hit for the “King of Pop,” Michael Jackson. As the tune reached a climax, the voice of magician Adam Stone emerged following a dramatic halt, reciting words from a script that ended with an exclamation: “…the evil of Thriller!” Continuing the ghostly affect, Lyles pointed to a card from the magician’s deck, stuck to the ceiling.
A sign posted near the restaurant’s exit advertised “Spanish Night,” which a helpful waitress described as a D.J. playing popular Spanish-language music. I smiled because jazz and Latino music have been amigos of longstanding, as when alto sax icon Julian “Cannonball” Adderley delightfully combined bebop and Bossa Nova on a vintage recording with Brazilian pianist Sergio Mendes: Cannonball’s Bossa Nova (1962).
The reasonably priced Little Havana restaurant provides ample parking. It has an informative website, as does show producers The Sonic Lifeline. Check out the available attractions, both culinary and musical. Check out this hidden gem in the Fort McHenry area as soon as you can. Saxophonist Herb Scott leads a quartet at The Hemingway Room on New Year’s Eve.
Gregory L. Lewis is a longtime Baltimore attorney whose jazz reflections are archived at reflectionscatoncastle.blogspot.com.