Miguel Zenon Explores Multimedia Jazz and Nuyorican Identity on His Majestically Insightful New Big Band Album
It’s never safe to nominate anybody as being the very best on a given instrument – unless maybe it’s something obscure like the contrabass clarinet. As long as Kenny Garrett’s around, it’s especially unsafe to put an alto saxophonist at the front of that pack. But it is probably safe to say that no other alto player has been on as much of a creative roll as Miguel Zenon has been lately. His sound, and his songs, can be knotty and cerebral one minute, plaintive and disarmingly direct or irresistibly jaunty the next. His latest album, Identities Are Changeable (streaming at Spotify), explores the complexities of Nuyorican heritage with characteristic thoughtfulness and verve. He and his longtime quartet – pianist Luis Perdomo, bassist Hans Glawischnig and drummer Henry Cole – have a stand coming up at the Vanguard, with sets at 8:30 and 10:30 from Nov 18 through 23; cover is $25 ($30 on Friday and Saturday) and considering that his previous stand there sold out every night, you should get there early.
It’ll be especially interesting to see how Zenon handles the music from the new album onstage, not only because it’s a big band album but that it’s a mix of jazz and spoken word. The ensemble opens with De Donde Vienes (i.e. “where you from?”), which sets a pastiche of Zenon’s friends and family explaining their sometimes tangled roots over a lively, circularly vamping backdrop. The title track begins the same way, a discussion of cultural identity and assimilation set to a more skeletal vamp, which then builds to a bright, trumpet-fueled largescale arrangement. Zenon finally makes his entrance on a dancing yet pensive note, aptly depicting the New York/Puerto Rico dichotomy that sometimes pulls at Nuyoricans. Perdomo follows with one of his signature glistening interweaves before the brass brings back a tense balminess, a storm moving in on Spanish Harlem.
My Home, another big band number moves from shifting sheets of horns into a moody, syncopated clave lit up by more carefree Zenon phrasing behind the snippets of conversation and finally a majestic, darkly pulsing coda. Same Fight, an elegantly but intensely circling big band waltz offers some fascinating insights on commalitities between Nuyoricans and American blacks: “If I didn’t speak Spanish, people would assume I was African-American,” one commentator relates. A somewhat more sternly rhythmic variation, First Language, follows, with some deliciously interwoven brass and Tim Albright’s thoughtfully crescendoing trombone solo
Second Generation Lullaby bookends a starkly dancing bass solo with a more lavishly scored, warmly enveloping variation on the initial waltz theme. The most salsafied track is Through Culture and Tradition, mixing up high-voltage bomba and plena rhythms and riffage into a large ensemble chart that’s just as epically sweeping as it is hard-hitting. Zenon closes with a relatively brief outro that brings the album full circle. What might be coolest about the entire project is that all the talking isn’t intrusive and actually offers a very enlightening look at how cultures in New York both blend and stay proudly true to their origins. It’s a sweet album from Miel Music (sorry, couldn’t resist).
As obscure subgenres go, accordion swing is pretty close to the top of the list. Accordionist Richard Galliano tackles that methodically and animatedly on his latest album, Sentimentale. He’s celebrating the release with a four-night stand leading a quintet at the Jazz Standard,Oct 23-26, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30; cover is $25, $30 on the weekend, Galliano is known for his ability to effortlessly leapfrog between idioms, from the baroque to tango to Romany jazz without missing a beat. This time out, he leads a pretty straight-ahead jazz session with Tamir Hendelman (the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra pianist, who wrote most of the arrangements), guitarist Anthony Wilson, bassist Carlos del Puerto and drummer Mauricio Zotarrelli.
Much of it is a 21st century update on how French and Belgian musicians were mashing up American jazz with their own vaudeville and barroom folk sounds back in the 20s and 30s, notably the opening track, Chick Corea’s Armando’s Rumba, which puts a continental spin on a song that was already a bit outside the Afro-Cuban tradition. The group immediately brings it down from there, adding an organic touch to Dave Grusin and Lee Ritenour’s Canto Invierno, then tackling Ellington’s In a Sentimental Mood with a lilting rhythm yet also with a similarly distant pensiveness – the accordion is one of the alltime wistful/bittersweet instruments, and Galliano owns that feeling when he chooses to go there.
Galliano’s take of Horace Silver’s The Jody Grind draws less on the original than Dee Dee Bridgewater’s boisterous version; likewise, the Broadway ballad Why Did I Choose You follows Bill Evans’ coloristic reharmonizations. There are two originals here, the jazz waltz Balade Pour Marion and the closing cut, Lili, a tender ballad dedicted to Galliano’s granddaughter and done as a guitar-accordion duo. Hendelman’s arrangements are remarkably contiguous, more than just a platform for soloing, which there isn’t a lot of here.
The group gently bounce their way through The Island and Verbos de Amor, adding some bulk to the songs’ tropical balminess, then pair hard-charging swing with more pensiveness on Plus Fort Que Nous. They do the Coltrane classic Naima as surprisingly weird psychedelia with a guitar sitar (?!?), then go back to the tropics with Mantiqueira. All this is a good indication of what the band will sound like here, maybe allowing for a little more guitar, which won’t be a bad idea since Peter Bernstein will be filling that spot.
Last night’s music and dance extravaganza at the 92nd Street Y, the centerpiece of the Shall We Tango festival – a celebration of global tango and tango-influenced sounds – started at 8, and there was still a floor full of dancers by the time the final band wrapped up at half past eleven. Organizer/pianist Polly Ferman created her own Histoire du Tango (to steal a title from the Astor Piazzolla book, richly and eclectically represented here), and this was a sweeping survey of every kind of tango. Tango as gangster music, boudoir music, serious concert music, ballet soundtrack, as part of the jazz spectrum, the classical repertoire and, arguably, the root source of all things noir: this show had it all.
There was graceful and often spectacular dancing by pairs assembled by the festival’s dance director, Karina Romero. Sometimes simply graceful, often sensationally athletic, the dancers showed off moves that would have been at home on an Olympic ice rink. Are the Olympians stealing those spirals, upside-down catch-and-release tactics and slinky motives from the tango world, or vice versa?
Ferman, a brilliant, witty, fiery performer and interpreter, played with a wicked precision and a cascading, volleying, relentless intensity in tandem with bandoneon legend Daniel Binelli, a frequent collaborator of hers. A little later, she brought out a quartet version of her all-female group GlamourTango, who celebrate women’s contributions to tango over the decades. The piano/bass/bandoneon/violin ensemble ranged from lively neoromanticism, to brassy swing behind a succession of singers, to balletesque themes and a little jazz, Ferman and her crew shifting through the idioms with effortless expertise. GlamourTango don’t seem to have any NYC gigs lined up, but lucky Milwaukeans can catch them at Latino Arts, 1028 S. 9th St. in Milwaukee on Dec 4 and 5; tix are $15/$10 stud/srs.
Bogota-based Quinteto Tango Leopoldo Federico – who take their name from the Argentine legend – aired out the Piazzolla songbook and other iconic material with a viscerally spine-tingling focus. Pianist Alberto Tamayo, violinist Miguel Angel Guevara, bassist Kike Harker, electric guitarist Francisco Avellaneda and bandoneonist Giovanni Parra stunned the crowd with a remarkably serious, moody, meticulous approach, Guevara taking the spotlight and making the most of it. The crowd gave them a standing ovation and wouldn’t let them leave without a couple of encores, the first of which sounded like a droll tango arrangement of the 1950s Big Bopper hit Chantilly Lace.
After a milonga which drew much of the audience out onto the floor to pair up while vintage, orchestrated 1950s sounds played over the PA, sizzling Venezuelan violinist Eddy Marcano and his seven-piece group leaped and bounded through a joyously animated set of folk-inspired jazz themes, bookending a darkly majestic take of Piazzolla’s iconic Libertango, anchored by the pianist’s haunting, hard-hitting, murky lefthand attack. The festival continues through Oct 15, with dance classes, milongas and a couple of shows at the Queens Theatre in the Park in Corona, across from where Shea Stadium used to be. The rest of the New York schedule of events is here.
[republished from Lucid Culture’s sister blog New York Music Daily]
You could call the Puppeteers a latin jazz band, but they’re a lot more than that. Pianist Arturo O’Farrill brings everything he does in the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra (who have a phenomenal new album, The Offense of the Drum, coming out): Afro-Cuban grooves, symphonic gravitas and a biting edge that sometimes slinks off into noir. Vibraphonist Bill Ware also brings some of the noir he does so memorably in the Jazz Passengers, but his duels with O’Farrill on the band’s debut album make it one of the most flat-out exciting jazz albums released in the past several months. Thursday night at Ginny’s Supper Club in Harlem, the two were wise to put bassist Alex Blake out front: with his terse but frenetically hammering solos on both bass and bass guitar along with his nonchalantly animated scatting, he was a big hit with the crowd. And he did all that sitting down for practically the whole show. With a fullsize bass, to call that a stretch is no joke, but Blake reached way up for the low notes – surreal, huh? – and made it look effortless.
Drummer Jaime Affoumado played mostly with brushes, deftly shifting from one Spanish Caribbean beat to another and then to straight-up funk from time to time. His purposeful drive kept one of the early numbers from drifting into Mad Men soundtrack territory. During a solo later on, he wryly impersonated a salsa percussion section, first with timbale riffage on the bell of the ride cymbal, then tapping out a bomba beat on the snare.
This gig was more about friendly camaraderie and exploration than megawatt solos. O’Farrill brought an unexpected and very effective wariness to a tempo-shifting, dynamic take of Resolutions, Ware and then Blake maintaining the mood throughout expansive solos. Ware’s jazz waltz Peaceful Moment gave the vibraphonist a chance go to deep into lushly lingering, nocturnal Milt Jackson territory before picking up the pace. Later the band looked back to Coltrane for a take of Soul Eyes that began with a resonant tenderness and then went on a methodical trajectory upward.
On this particular night, the version of Ware’s Bio Diesel was a lot more warmly straight-up and funky than the surrealistically bubbly album track – Ware revealed that he’d written it for his girlfriend, who works in alternative energy. Papo Vasquez’s Not Now Right Now got the night’s most acerbic, hard-hitting crescendos from both O’Farrill and Ware, but the night’s most memorable number, by O’Farrill, was arguably its most pensive one. Opening with a poignant neoromantic glimmer, the pianist then brought his trumpeter son Adam up to contribute an almost minimalistically wired solo, carefully and methodically crafting an uneasy mood that the rest of the band kept close to the vest and never deviated from.
Eclectic, intense Cuban pianist Elio Villafranca & the Jass Syncopators have made Dizzy’s Club at Jazz at Lincoln Center pretty much their home in NYC. They’ve got another weekend stand coming up June 13-15, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM. The lineup is pretty much the same as their last stand here, the notable change being Steve Turre on trombone and his signature conch shells in place of trumpeter Terrell Stafford. Which probably means more time in the spotlight for saxophonist Vincent Herring, always a good sign. Here’s what they sounded like in the room about eighteen months ago:
“You might think from their name that Elio Villafranca & the Jass Syncopators play New Orleans second-line marches, or hot jazz from the 20s. In actuality, that’s just how the word for their music is pronounced in Spanish. Last night at Jazz at Lincoln Center, the Cuban pianist and his allstar lineup romped through an expert and exhilarating blend of salsa and hard bop with richly melodic interludes and the occasional plunge into third-stream sounds. That’s been a common trait among Cuban pianists practically since the days of Ernesto Lecuona – at least those evil conquistadors left one good thing on the island, the “classical tinge,” to twist a Jelly Roll Morton phrase. Much as that is one of Villafranca’s signature characteristics, this show was all about the party: watching the couples sit and sway rapturously with the lights of Manhattan glimmering from high across the park, it was surprising that there wasn’t anyone other than guest dancer Mara Garcia undulating up there with the band.
Throughout the night’s early set, Villafranca for the most part eschewed flashy soloing in lieu of an endless groove, whether that be a frequently polyrhythmic salsa slink – Villafranca is one of the most rhythmic pianists anywhere – with straight-ahead swing, a couple of detours into rumbling Puerto Rican bomba and a long, fiery mambo at the end. Locked in with the tumbling piano, tenor saxophonist Greg Tardy alternated between hard-driving flights and warm melodicism and a wryly smoky bourdoir jazz interlude toward the end of the bomba tune. Trumpeter Terrell Stafford blasted through bop grit with rapidfire glissandos and trills…and a descent into genial blues at the end of his last solo, when he’d taken it so high that there was nowhere else to go. Alto saxophonist Vincent Herring served as a powerful foil to all the goodnatured wailing, adding a biting, sometimes haunting, modally-fueled gravitas. Bassist Carlos Henriquez held to a purist, terse groove – and took one of the night’s most memorable solos, voicing a horn. Drummer Lewis Nash seemed to be having the most fun of anyone up there as he swung through conga riffs, artful clave variations that leaned on the off beat, and a jovial bounce that was all the more powerful for its simplicity.
Augmenting the rhythm was an excellent two-man team of congas and bongos, Puerto Rico’s Anthony Carrillo and the Dominican Republic’s Jonathan Troncoso. The attractively lyrical opening number, Incantations, had Villafranca staking his claim to nimble, hair-raising polyrhythms. The band bookended a brightly pouncing, riff-driven tune with dark streetcorner conga breaks, following with a song ‘dedicated to politics,’ A Great Debater, Villafranca driving its insistence to a clamoring crescendo followed by a playful Nash solo. They wound up by taking a new, untitled bomba tune and swinging it with bisected, lyrical/frenetic solos from the horns, and then the big mambo at the end where Villafranca finally took off for the upper registers with a breathtaking tumbao assault: as cruelly as he hit the keys, the groove never wavered. It was every bit as adrenalizing to watch as it must be to dance to.”
The bill Tuesday night at the Times Center was a casual “Philippe Quint and friends,” but these friends are in high places, musically speaking. Great players never have trouble finding similar top-level talent, but this violinist has a particularly deep address book. Introducing his own Caprices from the film The Red Violin, John Corigliano attested to Quint’s eclecticism. “He can do bluesy swing, salsa, anything you ask him to,” he marveled. Quint validated him with an alternatingly terse and sizzling performance of the plaintively neoromantic solo theme and variations, through daunting octave passages, lightning descents and nail-biting intensity as they reached a peak.
A bit later on, his fellow violin virtuoso Joshua Bell joined him along with pianist William Wolfram for an effortlessly gleaming version of the opening movement from Moszkowski’s Suite for 2 Violins, followed by an equally gorgeous performance of Shostakovich’s Prelude for Two Violins and Piano, from the composer’s variations on the Jewish folk themes collected by legendary songfinder Moishe Beregovsky in the 1930s. There was a scripted false start and some banter about how Quint had appropriated the Corigliano suite, which Bell had played for the film score and which has since become a signature of sorts: here and elsewhere, Quint revealed himself as quite the ham when he wants to be.
The evening ended on an even more emotionally charged note with the wryly named Quint Quintet – comprising some of the world’s top talent in nuevo tango – playing a trio of Piazzolla classics. Bassist Pedro Giraudo anchored the songs with a spring-loaded pulse while Quint and bandoneon genius JP Jofre worked magical, angst-ridden dynamics while electric guitarist Oren Fader spiced them with measured, incisive figures. Pianist Octavio Brunetti led the group with a relentlessly mysterious majesty through a lushly crescendoing version of Milonga del Angel, then the rising and falling, utterly Lynchian Concierto para Quintetto and then a triumphantly pouncing take of Libertango. Quint favors a singing tone – he released an album of violin arrangements of opera arias a couple of years ago – so it was no surprise to see him literally give voice to the longing and passion in Piazzolla’s melodies.
Pianist Matt Herskowitz delivered an equally thrilling, all-too-brief set with his trio. Quint joined them for a jauntily swinging, exuberantly latin-tinged reinvention of Bach’s Cello Prelude, then a tender rendition of the Goldberg Aria. Herskowitz and the trio ended with a long, ferally cascading arrangement of a familiar Prokofiev theme. All three of these pieces will appear on a forthcoming album recorded by Quint with Herskowitz and his band.
There were also a couple of cameos with singer-songwriters where Quint proved himself adept at chamber pop and quasi-Romany jazz. This concert was a benefit for the Russian-American Foundation, known for similarly intriguing, cross-pollinational events, this one being the kickoff for their twelfth annual Russian Heritage Month. In Russia, classical music is a spectator sport: this audience, weighing in at about 50/50 Russian and American, responded with a Moscow-class enthusiasm.
“I’ve played for Presidents and heads of state,” pianist/composer Arturo O’Farrill told the audience at his show uptown last night, “But headlining the Apollo on a Saturday night is the greatest honor of all.” In a torrential, towering performance of new material and reinvented classics, O’Farrill summoned the ghosts out of the rafters of the legendary Harlem jazz shrine and conjured up new ones in a blaze and rumble of sound true to his band’s name. The Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra pulse and roar along on African beats, through melodies that transcend the typical Spanish Caribbean repertoire, a cast of some of New York’s best jazz players delivering the thundering majesty of a symphony orchestra. That’s their main gig; their other one, when they’re not winning Grammies or playing for Presidents, is supplying the New York public school system with instruments so that kids can grow up playing this music. How cool is that?
This concert had two centerpieces, O’Farrill’s Afro-Latin Jazz Suite as well as the Afro Cuban Jazz Suite written by his dad Chico O’Farrill, a paradigm-shifting composer and bandleader from another era. With its gale-force swells, pregnant pauses and momentous force, the new one often referenced the old one, but overall was a lot more robust. The old one started out as a schmaltzy ballad but soon took on variations that revealed the intro as a not-so-subtle parody of north-of-the-border blandness, through permutations that ranged from the baroque to the absolutely noir, to close the concert on a surprisingly subdued note.
Another centerpiece – this one the marauding, intense title track from the band’s forthcoming album The Offense of the Drum – began as a sarcastic faux military march and shifted artfully into a triumphant salsa jazz theme. No matter how much the powers that be try to contain the clave, it always wins. O’Farrill wrote it as an exploration of how the drum has been used throughout history as a weapon in the arsenals of both the oppressors and the freedom fighters – and in current New York history, to call attention to how drum circles in public places have been outlawed.
Otherwise, the blaze of the brass and the unexpected and very rewardingly ever-present, fat pulse of Gregg August’s bass fueled a mix of material that edged toward the noir. The orchestra reinvented Pablo Mayor’s Mercado en Domingo as a torrid cumbia, as psychedelic as anything you could imagine. The opening number, O’Farrill’s Vaca Frita, echoed Gil Evans with its dips from angst-ridden sunset burn to elegantly moody trumpet and alto sax solos over a spare, somber backdrop from just the rhythm section. Ageless piano sage Randy Weston led the band through a richly dynamic take of his African Sunrise, holding it down with the stygian lowest registers of the piano while guest Lewis Nash drove it with a clenched-teeth intensity from behind the drum kit, guest tenor saxophonist Billy Harper livening it with several expansive but steel-focused solos. The four-piece percussion section rose and fell from thunderous to suspenseful. And Chris “Chilo” Cajigas delivered a brilliantly excoriating, historically rich hip-hop lyric tracing hundreds of years of Latin American immigration, endless exploitation yet ultimately a distinctly Nuyorican-flavored triumph over all of it, set to the darkly jubilant backdrop of Jason Lindner’s They Came.
The only drawback was the addition of a guest turntablist on a handful of numbers, which created the kind of effect you get where one radio broadcast is competing with another. In this case, it was the jazz station plagued with interference from the hip-hop station just up the dial. This band swings like crazy, and the poor guy wasn’t able to keep up. Things like this happen when a nonmusician gets thrown up onstage with players of this caliber. Hip-hop and reggaeton have given the world thousands of brilliant lyricists, but, aside from maybe Yasiin Bey, not a single noteworthy musician.
Mexican singer Magos Herrera reaffirmed her presence as one of the most eclectically compelling singers in any idiom in an intimate duo performance with guitarist Javier Limon for media and a select group of friends at a Chelsea gallery Thursday night. Her previous album Mexico Azul celebrated the African roots of much of Mexican music and culture. Dawn, her new collaboration with Limon, she said, made the connection between Mexico and Spain seem “perfectly natural,” a rather brave assertion for someone whose career has advocated so strongly for the people of her native land. But it’s a quietly stunning move for her: throughout an all-too-brief, set, she and Limon enjoyed a casual chemistry but also an intense focus and commitment to finding the most subtle shades in the music.
Herrera sang in her signature, minutely jeweled contralto until finally going way up, further than you would expect someone with such command of her low register would be able to. Limon played sparingly and judiciously, letting his phrases breathe, matching the singer’s penchant for not wasting notes, which made his occasional flamencoesque flurry all the more intense. They opened the set with a syncopated tango of sorts, Herrera’s delivery managing to be both misty and disarmingly direct at once. Then they reinvented Skylark as a richly suspenseful, spaciously contemplative mood piece with hints of both flamenco and Andalucian music.
Throughout the rest of the set, Limon would sometimes shadow the vocals, following Herrera’s crescendoing, upward ascents with his own. On occasion, he’d light up a slowly swaying theme with a sputtering crescendo much in the way that Herrera would add gracefully scatting accents to bring a chorus to a gentle peak, singing in both Spanish and English. This approach maintained the flamenco influence without the cliches that so many acts who didn’t grow up with the music employ for over-the-top affect. They ended with a number that began with a rainy-day theme that wouldn’t have been out of place in the Sade catalog and then took it out almost as a march, with a series of hypnotically shifting vamps.
And speaking of Sade, there’s been a void where that singer once reigned as the queen of artsy, sophisticated romantic chanteuses. Which would give Herrera room to take over that role, if she wanted. Obviously, she might find that limiting: she’s a more subtle and diverse singer than Sade, and her interests run far beyond romantic balladry. But she’s got the torchy delivery, plaintiveness and sense of longing. What if Herrera – or someone like her – decided to take the Mexican bolero and reinvent it as American torch song? Wouldn’t it be cool if the default boudoir music of the west was a style refined and brought to its pinnacle by Mexicans? Forget about Obama’s lip service about immigration reform: there are an awful lot of places in this country where Mexican-Americans are under fire. What a pleasant and subtle way to fight back against all that repulsiveness – and to jumpstart the reconquista. Just a thought…
Singer Natalie Fernandez has a genre-smashing new album out, Nuestro Tango, a collaboration with a shapeshifting band whose core is pianist Zaccai Curtis’ Insight. Curtis, a member of both Donald Harrison and Cindy Blackmon’s bands, knows a thing or two about cross-pollination. Likewise, his brother, bassist Luques Curtis, of Eddie Palmieri’s band, whose work obviously inspires this project. Fernandez, daughter of well-known tango singer Stella Milano, does a lot with a small voice, singing fluently in both Spanish and English, more animatedly in Spanish which probably makes sense since the Spanish-language numbers are livelier. Essentially, as Palmieri does so often, these tracks make Afro-Cuban jazz out of themes from further south of the border, in this case from Argentina and Uruguay. The rest of the inspired ensemble includes drummer Richie Barshay, Reinaldo de Jesus on percussion, Daniel Antonetti on timbales, Julie Acosta on trumpet, Tukunori Kajiwara on trombone, and Zach Lucas on tenor sax plus a multitude of special guests.
They open with Azabache, the first of the candombes, which gets a swinging, fat groove, a lithe Zaccai Curtis intro, a gem of a piano solo that’s far too short, a balmy horn chart…then they make a guaguanco out of it. Right there you have the band’s m.o. El Dia Que Me Quieras looks back to the famous Eddie Palmieri version but with more of a nuevo tango feel and coy, terse vocals from Fernandez. Like the first track, they swing it out with a cha-cha groove.
Adios Nonino probably isn’t the first song you might think of swinging, but Fernandez does it tenderly over an understatedly slinky beat lit up by Richard Scofano’s bandoneon. They follow it with Afrotangojazz, a vamping feature for percussion and bandoneon. Malena builds to an emotionally-charged, suspenseful crescendo – and then the percussion kicks in, and suddenly it’s a summery candombe-salsa romp. My True Love, a salsa-tinged jazz ballad co-written by the pianist and singer, gets an incisive, wood-toned bass solo and a hard-hitting break for drums and percussion.
Since this is a Curtis Brothers project (the two earned the top spot on the Best Albums of 2011 list here for their album Completion of Proof) it’s no surprise that there’s socially aware content, most vividly expressed in the elegant jazz waltz Free Me, with its moody bass solo and a thoughtful lyrical interlude delivered by hip-hop artist Giovanni Almonte Alberto Mastra’s El Viaje del Negro gets rapidfire bursts of lyrics, a brisk, poinpoint beat and a full-bore brass section. By contrast, Juan Carlos Cobian’s Nostalgias opens with eerily glimmering piano and a brooding trumpet line setting the stage for Fernandez’ wounded, angst-ridden vocals, intertwined with the bandoneon and a darkly gleaming horn chart. It’s the best and most epic song on the album. Fernandez winds it up with a torchy yet nuanced voice-and-piano version of Eladia Blazquez’s Un Semajente It’s out now on Truth Revolution Records.
It takes nerve to put your own string quartet on the program after an Astor Piazzolla work widely regarded as a classic, but that’s what bandoneon virtuoso JP Jofre did at SubCulture last night. Not only was it not anticlimactic; it would have made a good segue with the bill’s centerpiece, the late-period Piazzolla suite Five Tango Sensations. Jofre filled the time between the two pieces with a small handful of hard-hitting shorter works of his own before leaping into his String Quartet No. 1, joining with the Attacca String Quartet: cellist Andrew Yee, violinists Amy Schroeder and Keiko Tokunaga and violist Luke Fleming.
Jofre broke a sweat before the first piece, a stormy, bustling miniature, was over. Then he led the group into the lingering, wistful introduction to Piazzolla’s Five Tango Sensations. The suite was premiered by the composer with the Kronos Quartet at Lincoln Center in 1989 and remains one of the standouts in a late-career burst of creativity to rival pretty much any composer, ever. The “sensations” in the title are meant to describe specific emotions; the composer wasn’t bragging about how sensational the suite is…yet that’s a good way to describe it. The ensemble built it to lushly shifting, Rachmaninovian washes of strings, resolutely propelling a vamp that was a lot more bitter than sweet. Dynamic shifts, which the group worked like a charm all night, went from to darkly pillowy to leaping and insistent, developing the ominously chromatic central theme and then angst-fueled variations to an ultimately triumphant conclusion. In between, the strings carried a somber, noirish lament that made the payoff at the end all the more rewarding – and unexpected, for anyone hearing it for the first time.
From there Jofre mixed and matched a trio of smaller-group numbers, first a tender, hypnotic lullaby for his niece and then a marauding, rat-a-tat theme that evoked the cello metal of Rasputina before shiftting back and forth between atmospheric washes and a big, shivery bandoneon cadenza into a victoriously anthemic ending. An austere, rather elegaic bandoneon/cello duet was next. Then they tackled the String Quartet – which is actually a quintet, the bandoneon featured in its later movements. Throughout the composition, Jofre kept his collaborators on their toes as the variations moved briskly through an uneasy rustle, warmly anthemic hints emerging from moody atmospherics, the bandoneon leading the cello through a furtive chase scene to a big, rhythmic, stalking passage that deviously signaled the way out. They wound up the show with an explosive, anxiously bustling piece whose dark drama crept into crime-jazz turf and ended cold. The pretty much sold-out audience responded about as explosively as the music they’d just heard. For anyone in search of soul-wrenching, emotionally-charged tunefulness, Argentina is the place to look, with Jofre as one of its most original ambassadors.