Algo Diferente... Latin Fusion Catches Fire!

by Mary Jo Papich
Photography by Troy Phillips

The BraziLionaires join forces with the Symphony for an orchestral tour de force.

Its rhythms are thrilling and alluring, the grooves infectious and sophisticated, and few sounds could be more romantic. When Latin fusion meets the symphony, you can be sure that Cupid’s arrow will fly!

In February, one of the Peoria area’s most popular music groups joins forces with the venerable Peoria Symphony Orchestra, igniting sparks of passion in the beautiful Civic Center Theater. In “Pasión y Romance,” The BraziLionaires set out to create an auditory “telenovela,” taking the audience on a journey through desire, heartbreak and hope: everything that comprises a true love story.

Enriched with the creative arrangements of Scott Hall and Dr. Tom Marko, their songs are sure to take on new life. But just who is this seven-piece group fusing jazz and pop with sultry Latin rhythms and delightfully catchy melodies?

Dove Benoit

Foundational Rhythms
The BraziLionaires was started by Rico Wayne Johnson (guitar/vocals, composer) and Dove Benoit (lead vocals) soon after they met at a Fourth of July party, just over five years ago. Someone handed Rico a guitar, she began to sing… and that’s when the fireworks began!

Rico, a Peoria native, was given his nickname years ago by friends. After graduating from Manual High School, he was accepted to the Guitar Institute of Technology and moved out to Los Angeles, his sights set on becoming a successful rock guitarist. While working to make ends meet, he fell in love with Latin music and joined a Latin band. When one of the percussionists introduced Rico to the music of some prominent Brazilian artists, it made a lasting impression that would change the course of his life forever.

Among his formative influences: the classic bossa nova of composers Antônio Carlos Jobim and Marcos Valle; the Spanish guitar sounds of Paco de Lucía and great Mexican singers like Juan Gabriel and Vicente Fernández; the rumba flamenco of the Gipsy Kings and the Latin-infused rock of Carlos Santana; and the stable of Afro-Cuban and salsa artists who recorded for Fania Records, also known as “the Latin Motown.”

After years of performing, Rico returned to Peoria in the late nineties and played in bands all over the Midwest. But he wasn’t satisfied. Those Latin rhythms just wouldn’t leave his head.

Music with a Latin Touch
Originally from Sacramento, California, Dove Benoit arrived in Peoria several years ago to work in the healthcare field. Growing up, her folks supported her love of music with voice and piano lessons. As a young girl, her favorite thing to do was dress up like Orphan Annie and sing “Tomorrow” for anyone who would listen! Ensemble and solo singing were always part of her school years, including her time at the University of California, Berkeley.

As the idea for a Latin band was percolating in Rico’s head, he heard Dove’s incredible voice and knew it was a perfect match. When a friend suggested they call themselves The BraziLionaires, Rico said, “It’s a bit corny, but let’s do it.” Starting out as a duo, they landed a regular gig at the Black Rabbit (now known as Kickback on Fulton) and started building a fan base.

Dove proved to be a powerful performer, adding a theatrical feel and strong entertainment value, and before long their crowds were standing-room only. They originally performed a variety of pop songs and Brazilian music, and later morphed into a Latin-fusion ensemble, having fun exploring “music with a Latin touch,” as Tito Puente called it—pop or jazz that incorporates Latin-American styles and rhythms, from salsa and mambo to son and bossa nova.

An Early Valentine
The Peoria Symphony Orchestra’s annual Romance concert takes place on February 10, 2018 at 7:30pm at the Peoria Civic Center. Concertmaster Marcia Henry Liebenow will celebrate 25 years with the PSO with a performance of Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1. Following intermission, the BraziLionaires will perform ten of their own compositions with orchestral accompaniment in their symphonic debut—and don’t miss the free dance party after the concert in the lobby! Tickets and more information are available at peoriasymphony.org.

Can’t make it to the concert? Check out The BraziLionaires’ Algo Diferente on Spotify, Amazon or iTunes; join their 5,000 fans on Facebook; and visit thebrazilionaires.com for more information.

The BraziLionaires’ recordings are 100% original compositions, while their vibrant live sets include their own arrangements of classics like “Mas Que Nada,” as well as Latin-infused renditions of popular rock tunes like “Hotel California.” The sidemen who flesh out their unique sound include some of the finest musicians in the Midwest:

Dr. Todd Kelly, trumpet and arranger; professor and director of jazz ensembles at Bradley University;

Dr. Tom Marko, drums and arranger/composer; director of jazz studies at Illinois State University in Normal;

Andy Crawford, bass; instructor and director of jazz combos at Knox College in Galesburg;

Jim Curless, tenor saxophone; Eureka College graduate and R&B specialist; and

Jose Reyes, congas/percussion; a Puerto Rican native who assists Ed and Bev Caballero with salsa dance lessons at the Contemporary Art Center. Rico calls him the “hot sauce” of the group!

When the band first got together, some of Rico’s musician friends were skeptical, thinking that “central Illinois might not get what you are doing.” But the truth has been just the opposite: Peoria has embraced The BraziLionaires, which has been wonderful to see. Today, the talented ensemble draws a sizeable crowd wherever they go—whether here locally or across the ocean in Italy, where they performed at a number of music festivals last summer.

A Symphonic DebutRico Wayne Johnson
Maestro George Stelluto of the Peoria Symphony Orchestra caught The BraziLionaires at a rehearsal when PSO guest violinist Charles Yang sat in with the group. Impressed with their sound and musicianship, he felt that a collaboration with the PSO could open up a whole new direction for the ensemble. It will certainly be a treat to our ears on February 10, 2018, when The BraziLionaires perform ten of their own compositions with full orchestral accompaniment.

Scott Hall, director of jazz studies at Columbia College Chicago, is creating the arrangements for eight of the ten pieces for the upcoming PSO concert; Dr. Tom Marko is arranging the other two. Hall has collaborated with jazz legend Ramsey Lewis on several compositions and arranged the piece the PSO performed with Lewis last fall. “My challenge was to create string arrangements from these great, original works by Rico Wayne Johnson,” he explains. “They will not only be high-spirited and enjoyable; they will be fun for the PSO to play.”

“The Brazilian grooves are infectious and incredibly fun to play,” affirms Dr. Todd Kelly. “We are all very excited to bring our music to the Peoria Symphony audience. We have gorgeous orchestrations of our original songs, and it will be thrilling to hear them played by a great orchestra.”

Meanwhile, Rico and Dove split their time between Peoria and Nashville, Tennessee, traveling around the Midwest for gigs and exploring the Music City, where their sound is quite unique among the city’s country artists. In the years to come, they hope to get picked up by a label and fill theaters around the country, sharing their distinctive music with as many as possible. But no matter what happens, they will always have affection for central Illinois.

“It’s just been so delightful to see that my hometown has really embraced us,” Rico notes. “We have a lot of love for Peoria and central Illinois.” a&s

Mary Jo Papich is founder of the Peoria Jazz All-Stars and co-founder of the Jazz Education Network.

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