Jazz was his pedigree, but when Sean Mawhirter moved back to Lawrence in 2011, he wanted to pursue two things musically.
Instead of being a sideman, he wanted to front a band. And he wanted to perform in a tango trio. He did both.
“Guy Montes and I wanted to start something,” Mawhirter said. “We’d been big fans of Tango Lorca and became affiliated with them. They’d since disbanded but there was still a ‘scene’ of people here who danced on a weekly basis. We really liked this kind of music and thought it could be something worth pursuing.”
So they started Cucharada, initially as a trio: Mawhirter on guitar, Montes on flute and Tina Bilberry on violin. They have since added Johnny Hamil on bass and Juha Silfverberg on accordion.
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“We decided the music wasn’t as danceable without a bass and accordion,” Mawhirter said, “so after our first EP in 2014, we filled out the band.”
Saturday night, Cucharada will celebrate the release of “Primavera en Kansas City,” its first full length, with a performance at Madrigall, 1627 Oak St. Showtime is 8 p.m.
Performing with them will be Christine Brebes, a long-distance mentor who helped transform Cucharada. They met her through her former bandmate in Tango Lorca, guitarist Beau Bledsoe.
“We started taking Skype lessons from her,” Mawhirter said of Brebes, who, in 2002, moved from Kansas City to Argentina. “This was about 2014. We decided we really needed to dive into the things that were really unique and specific to the music and she helped us do that.
“Christine would essentially attend our rehearsals and critique us. And she’d have some one-on-one sessions with (Tina). She gave us so much information.”
A pilgrimage to Buenos Aires in November 2015 was even more enlightening. During the one-month trip, Brebes gave Mawhirter and Bilberry lessons and showed them around the city, steeping them in the tango culture.
“She gave us a behind-the-velvet-rope experience and got us into places that were beyond what tourists are typically exposed to,” Mawhirter said.
“Mostly we took lessons, but we had chances to play with other people, sometimes by basically crashing their gigs, these dance parties and concerts. It was amazing.
“My other goal when we went down there was to really get into the things the dancing audience expects. There’s tons of etiquette that I wasn’t privy to when we started this. I just liked the music. I didn’t realize there were all these other things I needed to learn. For some people, that’s a little off-putting, but I find it fascinating, and I started slipping into that world and exploring it. “
After they returned to Kansas City, Cucharada started working on “Primavera en Kansas City.” Invigorated by the trip to Argentina, they went into the studio with a mission or two in mind.
“A lot of times when you hear American musicians playing tango, it’s a few items that are really more appropriate in a chamber-music context,” he said. “I’d been wanting to check out the entire history of the music. Our aim was to approach the dance tunes that are the cornerstone of the genre.”
“Primavera” addresses both sides of that coin.
“Like in jazz, there is a standard repertoire, and half the album addresses that, standards the tango crowd would want to dance to,” Mawhirter said. “The other half taps into the music that’s more appropriate for a chamber-music setting. We like to do both. And honestly if we were doing just one or the other we wouldn’t stay as busy as we are.”
All 11 tracks on “Primavera” are covers, standards that the band gave its own twist.
“We did some arranging on the album,” he said. “There’s a wide swath of tango history that includes stuff that’s over a hundred years old that we’ve kind of adapted for a more modern setting. There’s a suite we do at the end of the album that’s more appropriate for a contemporary classical listener.”
One goal of Cucharada’s live shows is to renew and generate interest in the music and the culture.
“I feel like there’s a victory to be had in not only getting better as a group but in waving the style flags and getting people exposed to this music, whether they’re interested in dancing or not,” he said. “I’ve been working on galvanizing a Kansas City tango festival, which is slated to start this time next year.”
Mawhirter, who studied jazz at Wichita Stage, also plays guitar in Mundo Nouvo, a 12-piece salsa orchestra. He still plays jazz, his pedigree, around Kansas City, but his priority is Latin music, which gives him more of an opportunity to stand out.
“Kansas City has such a long jazz history,” he said. “If you shake a tree, a really amazing jazz musician will fall out of it, probably a guitar player. I found a niche playing in a couple Latin bands. Some people might wonder why a white Midwestern dude is so into Latin music. I just haven’t been able to shake it. It never gets old to me.”
Cucharada will celebrate the release of “Primavera in Kansas City” during a performance Saturday at Madrigall, 1627 Oak St. 8 p.m. Christine Brebes, a former member of Tango Lorca, will perform with the band. Admission is $15.