Lucid Culture


CD Review: Mitz’s New Work

[Editor’s note: Thanks to Sami Abu Shumays of seemingly forever shapeshifting but always captivating Egyptian film music revivalists Zikrayat for the heads-up about this one.]

The album title, Mitz’s New Work is a pun. This began as a collaboration, the New York project of Greek/American pianist Dimitri Mikelis and drummer Julien Augier. The cd cover’s a brown-tinted shot of the Ditmars Boulevard N/W platform, so: N,W. Get it? Mikelis is joined here by a first-rate cast of Alex Terrier on saxes and Alan Bjorklund on cornet along with Pascal Niggenkemper on upright bass. Additionally, Loinel Loueke lends his imaginative guitar touch to three tracks.

The cd kicks off with American Minare and its staggered beat – aside from the fluttering horn cresdendo at the head, it’s not the strongest cut on the album. But stick with it: you will be rewarded. Nine to Eleven Days a Week has a wash of eerie sax (run through a flange pedal) playing call-and-response with the cornet as the piano and rhythm section echo each other sparsely: it’s a strange and instantly gripping tune. Mikelis is also fluent on the oud, and his approach to an Arabic-influenced improvisation on Takasim (Arabic for jam) is as beautifully plaintive as it is true to form. His piano voicings and the way he builds the tune, adding sparse bass notes as the right hand cascades along, are wonderfully suspenseful, setting up the stark two-chord flooring for the next number, Fifteen Monkeys. Mikelis and then Niggenkemper keep it dark and simple with distant echoes of Monk while layers of sax, with and without effects, swoop and dive overhead, eventually climbing all over the place, Curious George style, looking for trouble.

With its bright yet wary and ominous melody, eventually bringing in the cornet to brighten things up a bit (and then darken them again), The First Man (Who Trusted Me) evokes the more pensive side of Peter Apfelbaum or maybe Pam Fleming. The beautifully melodic Katolisthisi builds from a fluttery intro to a catchy descending progression from the horn and reeds and then a brisk yet breezy solo from Terrier. By contrast, Lunar is an ensemble piece, sailing along on an exuberantly intricate, supremely melodic arrangement. Pendovola introduces a brief Greek dance theme, shifts to a happy fanfare, then Loueke and Augier bring it down with incisive accents while Mikelis works just behind the scenes, adding a playful hint of chaos as the melody rises and falls. The cd wraps up with a big show-stopper, Kabanario, an eerie piano piece punctuated by wild, effects-laden sax until Mikelis finally takes off with pointedly fiery insistence. Fans of melodic, purist jazz shouldn’t miss the chance to get to know this crew: watch this space for upcoming NYC dates.

December 10, 2008 Posted by | Music, Reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Omara Portuondo – Gracias

Still going strong at 78, the iconic Buena Vista Social Club singer offers a heartfelt “thanks” here a la Keith Richards’ “glad to be here/glad to be anywhere.”  This new cd mixes vintage Cuban style romantic ballads and laments with a decidedly tropical feel, produced with taste and restraint by Brazilian 7-string guitarist Swami Jr., who also plays throughout. While Omara Portuondo didn’t write anything on the cd, she doesn’t have to look far to find a legion of A-list players lined up and ready to work with her, a global cast including percussionist Trilok Gurtu, Israeli-American jazz bassist Avishai Cohen and pianist Roberto Fonseca.


The cd opens with Adios Felicidad (Goodbye Happiness), imbued with a frequently characteristic, stoic, restrained beauty. The Sunny bossa number O Que Sera (a Flor de Terra), a duet with Brazil’s Chico Buarque, gets just enough beautifully minimalist salsa piano and congas to give it sway and bounce. The big, dramatic, piano ballad Vuela Pena (Fly Away, Pain) shows Portuondo’s voice undiminished as she reaches for a big crescendo, evoking a “terrible pain that poisons” and “turns a princess into the oldest queen.” Then she brings the drama up even higher on Cuento Para un Nino (Childrens’ Story), a hopeful ballad for future generations that impressively manages to avoid being cloying. The coy Amama Como Soy (Take Me As I Am), a tribute to her late, lamented contemporary Elena Burke is a swaying dance number again spiced with piano and congas. Rabo de Nube (Break in the Clouds) reverts to a hopeful, tropicalia feel with pensive bowed bass, followed in the same vein by the title track, a duet with Uruguayan candombe crooner Jorge Drexler.


Pretty much everything here has considerable, frequently minimalistic beauty. The album’s one misstep is a schmaltzy a-capella duet between Portuono and her granddaughter: by and large, unless you’re Lou Reed and you’re making the Berlin album, musicians should keep their brood away from the mic til they’re old enough to realize how cheesy it is to record them before they’re grown. Otherwise, if there’s any other criticism of this cd, it’s that it’s so tasteful and so impeccably done that a fan of this kind of music might well hear a conga break where Cohen takes a subtle little run up the scale, or might imagine a blazing horn chart in place of those synthesized strings. But those are matters of style: at 78, Portuondo is entitled to do whatever she wants. And if Obama makes good on his hint that the US might soon normalize relations with Cuba, it would be great to see her here. Til then, great to see her anywhere. 

December 10, 2008 Posted by | Music, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment