by Happy Camper
Imagine a place where jazz flows from a Steinway grand piano and fuses seamlessly with the great American songbook and classic Spanish boleros genre and style, like “Ain’t Misbehaving” and “Bésame Mucho.”
Picture a seasoned jazz pianist who sometimes goes solo and sometimes is accompanied by “guests” who just happen to be in the neighborhood, like Al Jarreau. Add good food, a funky Art Deco building, cobble-stoned streets, in a city filled with colonial architecture and 16th century Spanish fortresses.
And, did I mention no cover charge?
Welcome to Carli’s Cafe Concierto (changed the name to Carli's Fine Bistro & Piano), a small, stylish jazz club-restaurant housed in an Art Deco building in Old San Juan, on a cobble-stoned street overlooking the harbor. The place is owned and operated by pianist and recording artist Carlos “Carli” Muñoz, who has played with some of the world’s best jazz musicians and spent 11 years performing with the Beach Boys. Despite his eclectic background, Carli considers himself a jazz man, who likes to sprinkle his original performances in the style and genre of American pop, Spanish boleros, a little Latin music and flamenco.
I was fortunate to hang out at Carli’s this past weekend and again on Monday (went back for more) during a vacation and family visit to Puerto Rico. While Carli’s has been around since 1998, I learned of its existence only two years ago from a New York Times article. And it’s only this past week that I finally got around to visiting the place.
Glad I did, for Carli’s is a true gem. For starters, Muñoz’s range is impressive: he moves from ragtime to boogie- woogie to boleros with style and grace. I watched him improvise for two hours and savored each of his selections reminescent of pop and jazz standards. He loves to perform his own work and, on weekends, experiments with a percussionist/Peruvian “cajón” player, and often also a bassist.
Close to closing time on Monday, around midnight, Muñoz told me that he’s survived mostly by word of mouth and that it helps to have renowned musician friends who drop by his place when visiting Puerto Rico. I’m sure that being in a gorgeous tourist spot and having a nice bar and Puerto Rican infused gourmet menu can’t hurt; “mofongo con gambas” (fried green plantain and shrimp), by the way, is to die for.
But at the end of the day, it’s Carli’s music that carries the place. “Music and spirituality are connected,” Muñoz told me. “You can be poor and music lifts you up.” It certainly lifted me up, and for a while made me forget about rising bailouts and plunging 401Ks. On a visit to Old San Juan, Carli's may do the same for you.