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.
Monday night the Transatlantic Ensemble - Imani Winds clarinetist Mariam Adam and German pianist Evelyn Ulex - teamed up with nuevo tango bandoneon virtuoso J.P. Jofre for one of those semi-private concerts that are all the rage now (it wasn’t closed to the public, but you either had to know someone or get on the guest list). As you would expect from musicians of this quality, much of it was transcendent. Jofre and Adam shared a fondness for bittersweet ambered tonalities, and there were plenty of those, each of the artists at the top of their game. This was the album release show for the ensemble’s new one and if this performance was any indication, it must be superb.
The concert opened auspiciously with a series of pieces for clarinet and piano, beginning with Adam’s french hornist bandmate Jeff Scott’s Toccata. Ulex drove it into increasingly stormy, dancing, Piazzolla-influenced territory with a distantly bluesy undercurrent, Adam shifting in a split second from a crystalline pensiveness to bright, lively upper-register cascades. The first of three Paquito D’Rivera numbers, Invitation al Danzon, was exactly as Adam termed it, “a wonderful, hipswinging kind of piece,” juxtaposing increasingly brooding cantabile balladry with jaunty clarinet flourishes.
Ulex then delivered a comfortably expansive, satisfyingly nocturnal Schumann diptych, Fantasietucke, Op. 73. By contrast, her take of Rodion Shchedrin’s Basso Ostinato – a real workout written for a piano competition, replete with wryly rapidfire etude-like interludes – was a battle, one that gave her innumerable opportunities to emerge triumphant with her fingers still intact.
Jofre joined the duo for the night’s most gripping moments, first with a rather epic, hauntingly memorable, angst-fueled mini-suite full of noir bustle, electric dynamic shifts, a long, suspensefully carnivalesque bandoneon solo and finally a sense of closure with a surprisingly still, calm ending, something completely unexpected in the wake of all the fireworks. The trio then romped through Jofre’s Primavera, an insistently rhythmic, appropriately vernal song without words. Adam and Ulex closed with two selections from D’Rivera’s Cape Cod Files (a commission from a festival there), an anxiously elegaic Piazzolla elegy and then a lighthearted but surprisingly sophisticated, modernist Benny Goodman homage full of tongue-in-cheek swing and boogie-woogie japes.
Gregg August validates the theory that a good bass player always has a gig – to the extreme. He’s as comfortable servimg as first chair bass of the Brooklyn Philharmonic, or with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, as he is with the JD Allen Trio and Quartet and with his own bands. Versatile as August is, his passion is latin jazz. In his world, that extends to Spanish music, a genre he knows a little something about, having first honed his symphonic chops with orchestas in Spain. His playing is terse, direct and hard-hitting: much as he has chops to rival anyone’s, he chooses pulse and melody over any kind of gratuitous display. Because of that, it’s refreshing to hear his instrument as prominent in the mix as it is here: he invariably leaves you wishing for more. His compositions are nimble, energetic, and relevant: August does not shy away from darkness or from confronting issues of justice and social inequality. His new album Four by Six is not lighthearted, but it is often exhilarating. Here most of the tracks alternate between his quartet with Sam Newsome on soprano sax, Luis Perdomo on piano and E.J. Strickland on drums, and with his sextet with Rudy Royston on drums plus Perdomo, Yosvany Terry on alto sax, John Bailey on trumpet and Allen on tenor.
The album opens with Affirmation, an acerbic, somewhat acidic strut for the quartet. Newsome throws some elbows and they swing it back and forth. Another quartet tune, For Calle Picota is catchy as hell – it has the same kind of majesty and gravitas and economy of notes that Allen is known for, Strickland and Perdomo working toward a salsa swing as Newsome somersaults amiably.
For Max, the first of the sextet numbers, begins with a lush, flamenco-esque chart straight out of the Gil Evans book circa 1959 that Perdomo and then Allen follow in the same vein. The slowly slinking bass solo as the horns rise majestically over August’s roaring chordal pedalpoint is nothing short of transcendent. By contrast, Bandolim shifts quickly from a lively, tricky ensemble tune to free and spacious, with some marvelously judicious work from the whole band over whispery, nebulous rhythm bookended by sudden bursts of swing.
Newsome stars on the pensive salsa swing of Strange Street, taking his time achieving altitude, handing off to Perdomo, who goes for loungey and then lets August take it deep, deep into the shadows: his nonchalant chromatics are absolutely chilling. A Ballad for MV follows: the two pieces are essentially a diptych, this one more boisterous, Strickland’s clenched-teeth cymbals refusing to let go as Newsome sails apprehensively and Perdomo holds it down with a moody glimmer.
Relative Obscurity, for sextet, quickly shifts from a lushly syncopated horn chart to unchecked aggression by Bailey and then tensely hypnotic circularity from August. The album ends with a low-key, brooding knockout, For Miles, opening as a morose jazz waltz driven by Perdomo’s Satie-esque minimalism, Terry taking it just short of a triumphant hail-mary pass but instead alley-ooping to Perdomo who takes it up…and then down again into the eerily glimmering depths. August plays the album release show for this one at Birdland at 6 PM on Dec 6 with a slightly different cast; he’ll be at Shapeshifter Lab with the quartet on Dec 14 at 8 PM.
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 Enrique 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. Villafranca and his “jass” band are back at Dizzy’s Club tonight and tomorrow if you’re in the mood.
Saxophonist Tia Fuller may be best known to jazz listeners these days as a member of Esperanza Spalding’s band. With her new album Angelic Warrior – just out from Mack Avenue - Fuller matches her ferocious, purist chops with an equally formidable, eclectically cerebral approach to postbop composition. Much of this has to do with having grown up in a jazz family as the daughter of bassist father Fred Fuller, singer mom Elthopia Fuller and pianist sister Shamie Royston, who plays on this album along with her husband, this generation’s exemplary extrovert drummer, Rudy Royston. The rest of the cast, sometimes adding up to an all-female band, includes Mimi Jones on bass, John Patitucci playing single-note guitar-style leads on piccolo bass and Shirazette Tinnin on percussion. Terri Lyne Carrington guests on drums on three tracks, and Dianne Reeves adds an aptly misty vocal on Body and Soul, which the band reinvents as an expansive clave soul ballad, somewhat akin to Joe Jackson backing Sade.
On both alto and soprano horn, Fuller plays with a distinctively bright, penetrating tone, considerably more warrior than angel, right from the hard-hitting opening chords of Royston Rumble, the whole fam here united with a purposefulness that pervades this record, with a classic, explosive Rudy Royston solo toward the end. By contrast, Ralphie’s Groove – a Ralph Peterson shout-out, with a tip of the hat to both Ahmad Jamal and Tony Williamas – is the first of several showcases for Fuller’s razorlike precision on soprano. Fuller’s wickedly spiraling solo on the long horn toward the end of the title track is absolutely exquisite, as is her brother-in-law’s artfully shuffling descent to the toms after a bubbly solo by his wife: there’s an easy explanation for the chemistry in this band.
While the catchy ballad Lil Les may have been written as a playful child’s theme, with bright alto and piano solos in turn, it has a memorably uneasy undercurrent. Likewise, the breezy soca allusions in Descend to Barbados have edge and bite, particularly when Fuller ‘s alto nails the end of a casually sailing Pattituci solo toward the end. Their take on So in Love counterintuitively juxtaposes languid balladry with stilletto staccato swing lit up by an animated Jones solo and a clenched-teeth crescendo from the rhythm section. A pretty standard-issue Rhodes funk tune, Tailor Made suddenly dims the lights as Jones solos with a lingering tension before the band takes it back to funk on the heels of another Royston Rumble. They follow that with the catchy, spacious, brooding balllad Core of Me and then the matter-of-factly swinging Simpli-city, deftly spiraling piano in contrast to Fuller’s head-on, almost minimalist alto. And they finally take Cherokee from a suspenseful shuffle driven by Tinnin’s circling percussion to a racewalking swing, Fuller’s clustering alto crescendo keeping a steady eye on the target no matter how far she moves off center. Tunesmithing? Check. Playing? Doublecheck. Not a bad song on this album: a stealth contender for best of 2012.
A lot of people, this blog along with them, slept on Cuban-American pianist Alfredo Rodriguez’ debut album Sounds of Space when it first came out on Mack Avenue this past spring and that was a mistake. Quincy Jones produced, and has gone to bat for Rodriguez, whose dark, intense third-stream compositions and eclectic playing are auspicious to the point of putting him at the front of the pack for rookie of the year, 2012. Rodriguez’ training is classical; unsurprisingly, he’s just as adept at salsa jazz, but ultimately it’s his compositions that impress the most here.
The album’s most amazing number, Fog, is the only one of its kind here, a towering cinematic noir theme that could be a lost track from The Individualism of Gil Evans, featuring wind ensemble the Santa Cecilia Quartet. With brooding piano and terse bass puncturing the ominous mist of close harmonies, sudden horror cadenzas punctuating its creepy, nocturnal glimmer, it has a visceral power equalled by few other compositions released this year. Let’s hope that Rodriguez has more of these up his sleeve.
That’s the album’s final cut – getting there is an enjoyable and frequently bracing ride. The album opens on a disarmingly playful Carib jazz note lit up by Rodriguez’ balmy melodica phrasing and whispery piano over the suspenseful pulse of bassist Peter Slavov and drummer Francisco Mela, who eventually return to join Rodriguez on the tuneful Oxygen, a vividly Cuban take on late 50s Brubeck, and as it goes on, ragtime. Bassist Gaston Joya and drummer/percussionist Michael Olivera supply the grooves the rest of the way, along with multi-reedman Ernesto Vega, whose soprano sax adds nostalgic lyricism to the second track, Sueno de Paseo. The strangely titled Silence is cinematic to the max, with furtively scurrying piano/bass crescendos leading up to an unexpectedly buoyant soprano sax interlude, Rodriguez veering from dark to light, eventually mingling salsa and gospel tinges into the rhythmic intensity. The genial, tinkling salsa jazz tune Cubop is more Cuban than bop, while the Schumann-esque April sets a chillingly rippling neoromantic mood: for Rodriguez, it’s still winter.
With its distant, uneasy modalities, spaciousness and tricky 9/4 tempo, the title track evokes Christian McBride’s recent work. Crossing the Border is another cinematic narrative, incorporating elements of boogie-woogie as well as salsa and the neoromantic. A Ernesto Lecuona homage has a lilting, Brubeck-ish pulse, juxtaposing biting atonalities with warmer, dancing spirals. The arc of the album reaches higher with the dynamically rich Transculturation, bristling with a succession of suspense motifs, off-center chromatics and biting Middle Eastern clarinet over a brisk clave beat. And then the fog rolls in. If you caught up with this before we did, good for you: if not, don’t miss the boat a second time around.
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