[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.
A critic’s quote from the press release for trumpeter/singer Pete Rodriguez‘s amazing new album Caminando Con Papi (streaming in its entirety at Bandcamp) says something to the extent that Rodriguez is one of the few guys who’ve come out of the Nuyorican salsa world who can play jazz at the highest level. The opposite is also true: there are few jazz players who can play Nuyorican salsa at the highest level, because that requires complete attention to the melody, without cluttering it. Rodriguez – son of famed crooner Pete “El Conde” Rodriguez – inhabits both worlds like it’s second nature. This is an exhilarating album full of spine-tingling yet extremely terse solos and smartly counterintuitive tunesmithing from Rodriguez, accompanied by his Austin rhythm section of Sam Pankey on bass and Daniel Dufour on drums plus the always dangerous Luis Perdomo on piano and Robert Quintero conjuring up a one-man latin percussion army. Not only is this one of the best jazz albums of the year, it’s one of the best albums in any style of music released in 2013.
They open with Ruben Blades’ hit Tambo, alternating a blue-sky calm with biting, chromatic Perdomo riffage, then melding the two beneath a spaciously terse Rodriguez solo and an increasingly electric interweave of rapidfire countermelody as the drums and percussion charge. It ends as it began. Still Searching works what will become a vividly familiar calm/agitated dichotomy, Perdomo artfully implying the clave as he takes it into more contemplative territory before Rodriguez takes a long vector upwards – he may still be searching, but he’s on the right track.
Tick-Tock, a dreamy, resonant jazz waltz, is anything but mechanical, Perdomo’s spacious Rhodes chords anchoring Rodriguez’ lively trumpet, Pankey echoing Rodriguez’ judicious approach when he takes the handoff for his solo. Arlene artfully edges closer and closer to the blues on the wings of Rodriguez’ machinegunning riffage, morphing from swing to funk and then back again as Perdomo scampers with an unselfconscious joy.
The central dichotomy in the darkly lyrical No Lo Queria Hacer is spiraling trumpet versus a brooding backdrop, then they reverse roles with equally chilling results. The dynamically shifting tropical standard Cabildo rises from a pastorale to a romp, Rodriguez using it as a launch, Perdomo as a place to land: “Africa calls to me every day” in every possible way. The title track is a pensive latin soul elegy, Perdomo again adding gravitas against Rodriguez’ energetic attack up to a series of unexpected trick endings.
The harried, rapidfire horn intro of Shut Up And Play Your Horn gives no hint of the warmly lively, scurrying swing that follows, Perdomo on the murky side as expected and powerfully so. It’s Not Over Yet has Perdomo opening with an edgy modality ornamented by gritty bass riffage, Rodriguez introducing a moody calm that he works up to an exhilarating crescendo – it’s the best song on the album. They close with the hard-hitting, percussive El Camaleon, Rodriguez and Perdomo working dynamic contrasts up to a voodoo conga vamp where the two sorcerers unite.
Forget for a minute that Juan Garcia Esquivel wasn’t the world’s most memorable composer, or that a lot of his stuff sounds like Lawrence Welk on acid. This evening at Pace University downtown, polymath percussionist Brian O’Neill’s big band version of his sometime Esquivel tribute project Mr. Ho’s Orchestrotica played an irresistibly fun show that emphasized Esquivel the satirist, one of only a small handful of occasions that Esquivel’s big band music has been presented in concert in this country by a large ensemble. Along with the vaudevillian cartoonishness in Esquivel’s music, there’s a sense that everything is fair game for a spoof, especially American standards from the 30s through the 50s. Over-the-top as Esquivel generally is, there’s a subtly defiant reconquista going on if you listen closely.
Which O’Neill has done, to an extreme: virtually everything the 22-piece ensemble played, he’d transcribed by hand from the original albums. O’Neill has had a ball with this group, and his enthusiasm turned out to be contagious, boiling over into the band and the audience, who gave him a standing ovation. Recreating charts by ear for instruments as seemingly ill-paired as pedal steel, chimes, pandeiro, Hammond organ and a vintage synthesizer that basically doesn’t exist anymore might seem like a thankless task, but O’Neill loves his job: having to figure out, for example, whether a phrase buried in the mix is either the Hammond, or four alto saxes in harmony.
Esquivel’s main shtick became a familiar trope after just a few songs. The juxtaposition of extreme lows versus extreme highs, bass trombone and vibraphone, gong and flute, served as a comedic device as much as it showcased the wide-angle stereo sound he helped pioneer at RCA Studios back in the mid-50s. It’s also psychedelic to the extreme. Watching this show without being stoned was a trip: it’s hard to envision Esquivel in the studio without a haze of Acapulco Gold or whatever primo bud Mexicans were smoking back then drifting from the control room. The version of Take the A Train that the band played evoked a scene where one guy passes the joint to Esquivel and then suggests, “Why don’t make it sound like a real train?” Many giggles later, the choo-choo theme, complete with steam-valve vocalizations from the four vocalists onstage, made its way around the room.
As conductor, O’Neill took advantage of the chance to show off his chops on piano, vibraphone and various percussion instruments, including a LMAO two-monkeys-faking-each-other-out duel on cajon with bongo player Wilson Torres. The leader of the three-piece trumpet section, Bryan Davis, had been chosen for his ability to hit Esquivel’s cruelly difficult high notes, and he made it look easy. Bass trombonist Chris Beaudry got plenty of punch lines early on; as the concert went on, steel player Tim Obetz, organist/pianist Rusty Scott and then the vocalists got momentary cameos to swoop and dive and get impossibly surreal. Yolanda Scott’s stratospheric, crystalline wail paired against murky percussion on the intro to Esquivel’s version of Harlem Nocturne was wickedly adrenalizing…and then the song turned into a red-eyed grin of a cha-cha. The same vibe appeared in Boulevard of Broken Dreams, as if to say, “You Americans can’t really take this gloomy stuff seriously, can you?”
The rest of the show wavered between biting and ticklish. A slinky bolero from the 70s fueled by unexpectedly moody guitar from Tev Stevig evoked the dark side of Chicha Libre, and the closing cha-cha, Ye-Yo, got a drive from drummer Gary Seligson that the group picked up on in a split-second, as if everybody was hell-bent on getting some of that stuff. By contrast, Esquivel’s most famous song, Mucha Muchacha spun off sparks around the ensemble as they grinningly vamped it up to a surreal linguistic exchange between the vocalists. There were too many other bright and amusing moments to count from the rest of the crew, including trumpeters Paul Perfetti and Mark Sanchez, trombonist Dan Linden, horn player Ken Pope, flutist/saxists Sean Berry, Marenglem Skendo, Alec Spiegelman and Russ Gershon (of the mighty Either/Orchestra), singers Jennifer O’Neill, Kristina Vaskys and Paul Pampinella, bassist Jason Davis, and percussionist Jeremy Lang.
Longtime Astor Piazzolla sideman Pablo Ziegler‘s new album with the Metropole Orkest, Amsterdam Meets New Tango is lush, towering, majestically symphonic and not infrequently noir. There’s typically more adventure and lyricism in Ziegler’s piano than there is on this album and that’s because his role here is as a soloist: the orchestra gets to color the compositions. For those who like Ziegler in a more central role, he’ll be leading his quartet at Birdland from July 30 through August 3. This is a chance to hear Ziegler’s ambitious, no-nonsense compositions in a live concert recording with a heft and bulk that would make Piazzolla proud.
The opening cut, Buenos Aires Report, a pulsing jetliner theme, gets a big, bustling Mingus-esque arrangement, building off Ziegler’s growling, introductory piano riff with crescendoing solos for muted trumpet and bandoneon. Quique Sinesi, the featured soloist on guitar, gets to lead a very direct version of his Hermeto Pascoal homage, Milonga Para Hermeto, moving matter-of-factly from moody atmospherics to a spiky, Romany-tinged guitar solo with lively variations on a bright central theme. The guitar also opens the distantly suspenseful, ominous Blues Porteno with a brooding, skeletal quality before the misty, portentous sweep gets underway. Desperate Dance builds toward creepy, carnivalesque allusions over an acrobatic 7/4 rhythm lit up by bandoneon and trombone solos, after which the entire orchestra gets in on the Lynchian romp.
Murga Del Amenacer is the most traditionally-oriented tango here, catchy and purposeful with the hint of an inner pop song, Ziegler finally taking it into shadowy noir terrain with a flourish as it winds up. Places – which sounds like the Piazzolla classic Ciudades as Carl Nielsen might have orchestrated it – runs suspenseful permutations on a slightly funky piano hook, again reaching memorably for a noir ambience as it winds down. By contrast, Pajaro Angel, a tv theme, is the most stripped-down number here, a vehicle for gently lyrical guitar and piano solos.
True to its title, Buenos Aires Dark reflects the desperation and uncertainty of the 2001 political crisis during which Ziegler wrote it, a rising and falling tour de force that offers hope and then snatches it away in a second – the ending, with the percussion section going full tilt and foreshadowing disaster, is an absolutely knockout. The final track, Que Lo Pario – a homage to Argentinian author and comic strip writer Roberto “El Negro” Fontanarrosa – blends unexpected elements like a circular African folk riff on the vibraphone with big ominous orchestral swells, haunted fairground percussion and Wes Montgomery-style guitar. Whatever you want to call this album – classical music, jazz or, if you want to be like the Argentinians and forget about those distinctions and just call it tango – it makes you wish you were there that winter night in Amsterdam in 2009 when this concert was recorded.
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