[republished from Lucid Culture’s sister blog New York Music Daily, which has appropriated the Balkan and Slavic sounds this blog covered for years]
Is there a more cinematic composer working today than Lev “Ljova” Zhurbin? It would seem not. Like all film composers, he’s called on to portray every emotion and every possible scenario within a very short time frame, which informs his writing beyond the world of film as well. His latest album, No Refund on Flowers, with his string ensemble the Kontraband is considerably more stripped-down and a lot closer to those shapeshifting cinematics than the group’s boisterous, lushly orchestrated, absolutely brilliant 2008 debut, Mnemosyne. Which is to say that its charms are somewhat more subtle. Its title is a wry reference to a sign in the window at Ljova’s corner deli, Sing & Sing Market at 96th and Columbus Ave. He distinguishes himself with a devious wit along with his nonchalantly sizzling chops on the viola and fadolin along with accordionist Patrick Farrell, bassist Mike Savino and percussionist Mathias Kunzli. Vocals are by Ljova’s wife, the crystalline, brilliant singer Inna Barmash. What’s most obvious from the first few bars of the dancing opening track, Sam I Am, is how much fun this band is having. Who would have expected the tangoesque (Ljova is a GREAT tango composer) interlude, or the Russian chromatics thrown in for good measure, or the way the band lets the suspense linger without any resolution?
The Blaine Game, a tightly wound, shapeshifting romp centered around a fluid accordion riff was written in a Blaine, Washington coffeeshop between jazz workshops, Kunzli’s rattle doing a fair impersonation of an espresso machine. Barmash – frontwoman of the deliriously fun Russian/Romany band Romashka – sings the John Jacob Niles version of Black Is the Colour, with a tender, crystalline resonance and some spine-tingling high notes, maxing out the torch factor over what’s essentially a tone poem until it goes all psychedelic and eerie. It has very little in common with the old English folk song.
The swaying nocturne Yossik’s Lullaby portrays one of Zhurbin’s sons as the more serious of the two; his brother Benjy gets a joyous bounce with operatic echoes and a big crescendo. Likewise, Mad Sketchbook, a NYC subway tableau, grows cleverly from a catchy circular theme to frenetic clusters and then back. The centerpiece of the album is By the Campfire, a sadly pulsing, chromatically-charged waltz, with a creepy, explosive, crashingly noisy interlude, Barmash sliding up and leading the band into a raging march. The lyrics – which Barmash translated from a 12th century German poem – echo a sadly universal theme: “Lies and spite rule the world, law is dead, truth is poisoned – the wisdom of our age teaches theft, deceit and hate. ” The album winds up with a pulsing waltz that builds on a riff from Mahler.
Let’s say you run a Chelsea gallery and want to expand your base. Maybe you know somebody who knows one of this era’s great cellists. Why not invite that cellist for a solo performance, and invite a whole bunch of people to see her play? That’s exactly what the brain trust at the FLAG Art Foundation did last night. And the place was packed, an impressively diverse crowd treated to intimate, meticulously nuanced performances of Bach’s Suite in C Major and Krzysztof Penderecki’s Divertimento by Inbal Segev.
Segev approached the Bach emphatically, digging in hard, especially in the lowest registers as she got underway. Ranging from gracefully balletesque to matter-of-factly scurrying to a similarly considered, wary resonance, she brought a wide emotional spectrum to life. The Penderecki gave her a chance to expand her dynamics, shifting through its uneasy leaps, bitingly percussive pizzicato climbs and creepy washes with a steely focus. From the first few notes of the concert, Segev had a feel for the room, with a tone that blended rusticity and moody, richly ambered gravitas. The sonics of the untreated white-box gallery space aren’t suited to many kinds of music, but its natural reverb turned out to be the perfect complement to the program’s mostly low-midrange tonalities.
Enticement via concert has been going on for a long, long time: after all, why do you think so many restaurants have live jazz? And it’s become more crassly commercial since the dawn of social media: punk bands at the sneaker store chain; kiddie bands at the supermarket; sissycore bands at hastily prefabricated Bushwick “luxury” condos. Segev’s performance was a refreshing alternative to all that – and instantly puts the FLAG folks on the map for their consummately good taste.
Pianist Yoonie Han has a passion for the Romantic repertoire, and chops that make her ideally suited to play it. At her midtown Manhattan recital last night, she employed what seemed to be an effortlessly silken legato, evincing the most minute timbral and tonal shifts from the keys with a touch that she varied stunningly from muted and wounded, to an icepick incisiveness, depending on the demands of the music. The program featured material from her forthcoming Steinway album Love and Longing, a showcase for her meticulously lyrical, vividly cantabile approach.
Han’s fondness for Spanish culture and music informed her richly dynamic take of a solo piano arrangement of Granados’ El Amor y La Muerte, from his opera Goyescas. Its narrative is a love triangle that ends with a duel, the guy who got the short end of it dying in his lover’s arms. Han lit its red-light sections luridly in contrast to the tender lullaby theme she wound it down with: the effect was unselfconsciously breathtaking. She gave a similar, rubato-tinged restraint to the Melodie from Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice, then evoked the plaintiveness of a couple of famous Chopin and Rachmaninoff preludes via a bitterly glimmering take of the Schubert song Gute Nacht from the Franz Liszt solo piano arrangement of the Winterreise suite. Her approach was much the same with an arrangement of Liebestod, from Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, as well as her encore, where she shifted to a somewhat more ebullient side of Schubert.
A new commissioned work, Theodore Wiprud‘s El Jaleo mingled otherworldly, starlit upper-register ripples with an insistent, flamenco-inflected lefthand drive echoing the night’s opening number. Han’s most adventurous – and arguably contentious – moments came during the Busoni arrangement of a Bach violin chaconne written following the death of the composer’s first wife. Han’s fluid rhythmic constancy dovetailed with the rest of the material…but then she decided to take it forward in time a few hundred years with rubato and dynamics that perhaps Busoni but probably not Bach would have envisioned. Thrilling? Absolutely, and the crowd loved it. An exercise in artistic license? That’s Han’s prerogative, she’s earned it. Better than the original? Debatable. Ironically, all the rapture, and suspense, and poignancy and longing that she brought out so memorably from the other material might also have shown itself a little more with this had she held back a little and let the broodingly elegant exchanges of voices speak for themselves. But that’s nitpicking.
Trombonist Ryan Keberle recently commented in the New York City Jazz Record that music educators like himself ought to spend more time figuring out how to get their students to find “the zone,” where they can improvise at the highest level. One way to do it was how Keberle did it at Hunter College last night with his Big Band Living Legacy Project, surrounding himself with a crew of big band jazz legends, many of whom had mentored him or inspired him to transcribe and learn solos they’d played on albums over the past several decades. With this group, Keberle spent most of his time conducting rather than soloing, but when he did – especially during his own luminous, Gil Evans-ish arrangement of Summertime, which he sheepishly told the crowd he’d decided to reinvent as a trombone feature – he very tersely and poignantly headed straight for “the zone” and stayed there. And no wonder. Who wouldn’t be inspired to take it to the next level, surrounded by the players onstage?
This is an amazing band. The show was mostly upbeat swing blues tunes, the majority from the Basie book, with a trio of numbers associated with Ellington along with boisterous, brass-fueled takes of JJ Johnson’s Say When, Thad Jones’ Big Dipper, Sy Oliver’s Looselid Special and the old Benny Goodman chestnut King Porter Stomp. Scott Robinson stood in for Goodman, as Keberle wryly put it, with his whirling clarinet and then his blues-infused tenor sax work. Baritone saxophonist Joe Temperley (of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra) showed off a period-perfect, mile-wide tremolo on an achingly lyrical take of Ellington’s I Like the Sunrise, from the Iberian Suite. James Zollar delivered crescendos that ranged from sizzling to droll from behind his mute alongside his fellow trumpeters Bob Millikan, Earl Gardner and Greg Gisbert. Altoist Jerry Dodgion got a couple of soulful spots late in the show, up front in the sax section alongside Billy Drewes and Bill Easley.
Watching bassist Rufus Reid move from the simplest pedalpoint on the oldest numbers to a majestic stroll on the more recent material was a capsule history of big band jazz rhythm. Likewise, Carl Allen’s trip through beats from across the decades, from shuffles on the ride cymbal through more artful, unexpected ka-THUMP syncopation on the more blazing tunes, while pianist Alan Broadbent colored the songs with ambered blues tones and the occasional misty interlude way up in the highest octaves.
Bass trombonist Earl McIntyre – whose mighty gravitas anchored the Arturo O’Farrill band’s sensational show a week ago at the Apollo – drew plenty of laughs as he faked out the crowd with pregnant pauses in a romp through Thad Jones’ The Deacon, one of the Basie tunes. His fellow ‘bone guys Mike Davis and Clarence Banks also got time in the spotlight later on, no surprise considering who the bandleader was. The highlight of the set might have been a richly gospel-inspired take of Mary Lou Williams’ wickedly catchy Blue Skies. Or it could have been the majestic version of Ellington’s Such Sweet Thunder, or the nimble, incisive run through Isfahan a few numbers later. With this kind of material and these kind of players, you just sit and sway in your seat and take it all in and remain grateful that you live in an era where people still play this kind of music – and pass it on to another generation.
Is it fair to expect a five-year-old to be able to identify ballet music? At the Greenwich Village Orchestra‘s joyously kinetic performance yesterday, the five-year-old along for the ride with this crew did exactly that, without any prompting. Does that make her precocious…or simply normal? Is a physical response to music an innate human trait? If a child doesn’t respond to music in a visceral way, is that a trouble sign …or just that the kid might need some sleep, or might not like a particular style of music? How many parents ask themselves questions like these?
Although this particular program was not devised as a children’s concert, there were several, ranging from preschool through middle school age, scattered throughout the crowd with their parents…and they were into it! And aside from boisterously applauding between pieces, they kept still. And that probably wasn’t easy, considering how much fun the orchestra was having. Who had the most? The pointillistic trumpet section – Warren Wernick, Ian C. Schaefer and Richard Perry Woodbury III? The percussion section – Gerard Gordon, Jamie Reeves, Julian Bennett Holmes, Sunita deSouza and and Benjamin Vokits – who got to air out a carnival’s worth of rhythms on everything from deep timpani to clashy cymbals to twinkly vibraphone? Conductor Barbara Yahr, a lithe and meticulously graceful presence in front of the ensemble, finally signaling the end of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Cappricio Espagnol with an unselfconsciously triumphant reach for the rafters?
The concert’s unifying theme (pretty much every performance by this orchestra has one) was global music with a Spanish tinge. The simplest and most obviously derivative was Aaron Copland’s El Salon Mexico, fleshed-out variations on folk themes to open the show. Four dances from Alberto Ginastera’s Estancia suite vividly evoked field hands conspiring, a balmy romantic waltz deep in the wheat, and cowboys on a race across the plains (this is where the trumpets had a ball), up and out on a victorious vamp.
Dancers Orlando Reyes and Adriana Salgado swayed and intertwined elegantly against the alternately stately and plaintively lyrical pulse of a couple of Astor Piazzolla works. As a bonus, the noir-tinged Fracanapa and a lush, string-fueled arrangement of Milonga del Angel, then Osvaldo Pugliese’s earthier Negracha were lit up with guest soloist JP Jofre’s wistfully lyrical bandoneon.
Yahr grinningly introduced the Rimsky-Korsakov as anything but authentically Spanish, and she was right on the money, but it made for a delirious romp just the way it was, an indelibly Slavic suite spiced with Russian Romany riffs rather than anything genuinely evoking flamenco, or Romany sounds from west of the Balkans. And there were hints of klezmer in there too, throughout the boisterious overture and variations and the more subdued waltz that later on becomes a “Scene e canto gitano” or well-intentioned, propulsively lyrical facsimile thereof. This was the concluding concert in the GVO’s 2013-14 season, sending both parents and kids out into the reception afterward humming what they’d just heard.
Sara Serpa is one of the most distinctive voices in any style of music, and widely regarded as the most original vocalist in jazz. A protegee of legendary noir pianist Ran Blake, vocalese is her thing. She doesn’t often sing lyrics, preferring the role of instrumentalist. But what an instrumentalist! Her hauntingly clear, crystalline soprano made the Asuka Kakitani Jazz Orchestra’s debut album one of the most arresting releases of this past year. She’s got a new duo album, Primavera, with her partner, guitarist/tunesmith Andre Matos and an album release show May 22 at 8 PM at Greenwich House Music School, 46 Barrow St. in the west village on an excellent doublebill with the similarly inclined Emilie Weibel, who’s releasing her playfully quirky oMoO solo vocal project.
Serpa’s earlier compositions are meticulously constructed, and more shapeshifting and longscale than the terse pieces here. The album opens with the title track, a loopy vocal phrase underpinned by uneasy guitar, down to a lull and then up with a dancing crescendo. Tempo, the first of Matos’ compositions here, is a guarded waltz, a horror film theme minus the strings. It’s good to see Serpa asserting herself as a pianist – on this track, on Fender Rhodes – as well a a singer.
Rios, another Matos number, is a catchy waltz, the opposite of the previous number, but just as catchy, lit up by some frenetic melodica from Leo Genovese. Choro, also by Matos, juxtaposes flitty guitar and Greg Osby soprano sax against Serpa’s resolute vocals. A Serpa original, Kubana is just plain amazing, her soaring, multitracked vocals harmonizing with Matos’ understatedly gorgeous, jangly chords all the way up to a haunting, anthemic conclusion.
Another Serpa original, Song for a Sister is a warm, springlike number, Matos’ spacious, methodical interlude giving way to gently dreamy, shimmery vocals. Caminho, by Matos, brings back a brooding, waltzing theme, a Lynchian summer theme that darkens as it goes along.
Matos and Serpa join for restrained, almost skeletal settings of Alberto Caeiro poems, then Serpa’s Novem works a circular theme that goes swinging with a hypnotic piano/guitar vamp – it’s Wes Montgomery noir, if such a thing can exist. They reinvent the Ran Blake/Jeanne Lee classic, Vanguard, as a spaciously unwinding, uneasily matter-of-fact theme, expanding beyond the luminous mystery of the original. Gardening, by Matos, cleverly morphs from a canon to a dance over a catchy, nonchalant guitar loop. They do Guillermo Klein’s Se Me Va La Luz as an insistent anthem fueled by Matos’ percussive chords and close with a bluesy Serpa setting of an E.E. Cummings [Ha Ha, So There] poem in the same spare, resonant vein as Tin Hat’s versions of that poet’s stuff from a couple of years ago. Up to this point, intensity has been Serpa’s great shining quality; as spare, and sometimes low-key, and fun as this album is, she hasn’t relented, and Matos keeps pace all the way.
The organ at Christ & St. Stephen’s Church on the Upper West Side has an unexpectedly bright, ambered tone in the style of French organs of the mid-1800s. But the pipes here don’t have the kind of slow, echoey resonance they would in a marble cathedral. That enabled pianist/organist Jeremy Filsell and organist Nigel Potts to play their fascinating, timbrally rich arrangement of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 1 at a briskly triumphant clip that they couldn’t have gotten away with in a venue where the notes take longer to echo out, reaffirming Cameron Carpenter‘s recent observations on how much the diversity of organs around the world pretty much determines what can be played on them and what can’t.
The adventurousness of this program wasn’t limited to reinventing Rachmaninoff. The night’s theme, Filsell told the crowd, was composers born in 1873 along with the iconic Russian Romantic. Filsell opened on the organ with Belgian composer Joseph Jongen’s Sonata Eroica, a dynamically-charged blend of baroque precision and lush Romantic harmony counterbalanced by an eerie, otherworldly, much more forward-looking quality. In places, it reminded of Widor’s symphonies. In its more Germanic moments, it echoed another composer on the bill, Max Reger, whose Toccata & Fugue in D Minor Potts delivered with a steady verve. Both Potts and Filsell also played their own solo transcriptions of Rachmaninoff works, Potts doing a rapturous, aptly cantabile take of the famous Vocalise, Filsell doing two glittering, cascading early songs, Melody, Op. 21, No. 9 and Dreams, Op. 38, No. 5 at the piano.
But the piece everybody came out for was the Concerto. Filsell told everyone that it’s his favorite of Rachmaninoff’s four, reaffirmed by how much joy and transcendence he brought to it. Like so much of the composer’s work, its transcendent message and undercurrent of hope against hope couldn’t be more clear. Filsell played the opening movement with a steady, lilting, often jaunty sway, then pulled back and let the second resonate with an angst-drenched rubato. Meanwhile, Potts nimbly handled the orchestral score, and that was a revelation. The steady precision and often very quiet, even minimal approach he gave it underscored the composer’s ceaselessly clever counterpoint, contrasts and conversational sensibility that could just as easily get lost in the wash of a string section. They took it out with a victorious, towering splendor. One can only think that a nineteen-year old Rachmaninoff – that’s how old he was when he debuted the initial version of this work – would have joined in a standing ovation along with the audience. While it doesn’t appear that this concert was recorded, Filsell and Potts’ arrangement of both this piece and the immortal Piano Concerto No. 2 are both up at youtube in their entirety.
[republished, more or less, from Lucid Culture’s more rock-oriented sister blog New York Music Daily]
Catherine Russell is the kind of jazz luminary you might discover at three in the morning, belting her heart out with an obscure funk band who later change their name and style and become a huge draw on the indie rock circuit. In the fourteen years since that initial sighting – true story -she’s become one of the biggest names in oldtime swing jazz. Her previous album, Strictly Romancin’, was a Louis Armstrong tribute (Russell’s multi-instrumentalist dad Luis played in Armstrong’s band: the apple didn’t fall far). Her latest album, Bring It Back, goes deeper into the blues, in a Duke Ellington way.Harmonia Mundi gets credit for releasing the album, which is up at Spotify.
The band lineup is pretty much the same as the previous album: musical director Matt Munisteri on guitar and other fretted instruments; Mark Shane on piano; Lee Hudson on bass; Mark McClean on drums; Glenn Patscha on organ; Jon-Erik Kellso on trumpet; Mark Lopeman on baritone sax; John Allred on trombone; and Dan Block and Andy Farber on reeds. Other than just the pure chops they bring to the songs, the way the both Russell and the band shift direction depending on the underlying emotional content is what distinguishes them from the legions of shi-shi restaurant bands and cruise ship combos who try to make a go of this oldtime stuff. The arrangements may be refined to the nth degree, but the group’s approach to the songs’ heartbreak and intensity (and sometimes just plain good fun) is disarmingly direct.
The album opens with the catchy midtempo title track, Russell’s urbane sophistication balanced way out on a limb by Munisteri’s unexpectedly feral, wildly string-bending guitar, confronting the angst that the vocals refuse to give in to. “High” is the operative word in Shooting High, with its elegant handoffs from one instrument to the next. The steady, shady I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart matches muted trumpet and somewhat furtive sax to the wistfulness and resignation in Russell’s understatedly torchy delivery. Then they pick up the pace with the jaunty, dixieland-flavored You Got to Swing and Sway.
The band does Aged and Mellow as an oldschool soul ballad in the same vein as Willie Nelson’s Night Life – Russell doesn’t let on how the story’s actually being told by a gold-digger. They keep the high spirits going with the nonchalantly triumphant, shuffling Darktown Strutters’ Ball and then hit a peak with a big, brassy arrangement of Lucille (not the B.B. King song but a previously unreleased, exuberant number by Russell’s dad).
Russell’s most pillowy vocal here is You’ve Got Me Under Your Thumb, set to a ragtime-tinged piano-and-guitar backdrop. After the Lights Go Down, a gorgeous blend of oldschool soul and blues, sets Russell’s confidently conspiratorial vocals against wickedly shivery guitar and organ. I’m Sticking With You Baby, a litany of prewar aphorisms, has more invigorating, bluesy organ, Russell trading bars with the band as they take it all the way up at the end.
The minor-key, irony-drenched, ragtime-inflected Strange As It Seems makes a stark contrast. The jump blues Public Melody Number One picks up the pace again, with an absolutely surreal lyric:
Frankenstein, a bundle of joy
Jesse James is a teacher’s pet
A gatling gun compared to
Shots from a hot corvette
The album ends with an absolutely riveting, unexpectedly energetic version of the old Billie Holiday standard I Cover the Waterfront, rising and falling with an angst that dignifies the neighborhood hooker and her ache for the guy who’s gone away across the ocean, no doubt for good. On one level, this is a trip back in time; on another, a lot of the playing here is more eclectic than what your typical studio band would try to pull off in, say, 1934.
Kinetically shapeshifting, stunningly eclectic Slavic string ensemble Ljova & the Kontraband played two shows Sunday evening at the National Opera Center, one for the kids and one for the adults. What was most striking was that even as bandleader/viola virtuoso Lev “Ljova” Zhurbin kept a mostly kindergarten-and-under audience attentive and often wildly involved – the perimeter of the room quickly becoming a proto-moshpit – he and the band never dumbed down the material. Nor did they condescend to the children: no babytalk, no “LLLEEETTT’SSS TTTAAALLLKKK IIINNN SLOOO- MOOO.” He challenged the kids, and bantered with them, and they rose to the occasion. As it turned out, one of the girls quickly identified his instrument as not being a violin. Another kid wanted to know why Zhurbin had switched to viola at age twelve after seven years playing the violin. “I like a lower sound,” he explained. “All the high notes on the violin made me want to freeze!”
You think an American kid can’t dance in 7/8 time? You didn’t see the five-and-unders having a ball with it at this show. “You can count to seven, right?” Zhurbin grinned, and it sure looked as if they did. What was funny, and maybe predictable, was how the girls (a slightly older demographic here) hung toward the front and watched, and took it all in, and responded eagerly to Zhurbin’s dry wit while the boys thundered around the room, amped from the steady boom of Mathias Kunzli’s frame drum, Jordan Morton’s nimble, trickily syncopated, richly dynamic bass, Patrick Farrell’s torrential, often seemingly supersonic accordion volleys and Zhurbin’s own dancing, constantly metamorphosizing viola lines. What was almost as cool was how the parents let the kids run free: no helicoptering, no mom in hot pursuit with bottle of hand sanitizer or baby wipes. Then again, it makes sense to assume that fans of this band would make cool parents. And they were down with the wrly edgy cinematics of Bagel on the Malecon and the uneasy yet tongue-in-cheek bouncy-house rhythms of Love Potion, Expired and the rest of a largely upbeat set while the herd ran amok
The second set was for the parents, the kids moving to an adjacent room for a set by a similarly lively group, vintage French pop revivalists Banda Magda. And it was a opportunity, as Zhurbin explained, to get more subtle and even more eclectic, showcasing a handful of tracks from the band’s excellent new, second album, No Refund on Flowers, as well as a few older crowd-pleasers and lots of pretty intense new material. This group has commissioned a lot of new material via Kickstarter (food for thought for other bands), and they played a few of those, notably a surprisingly stately, carefully considered wedding waltz for an older Vermont couple who never had a chance for a first one since the husband had to rush off to World War II.
They also romped through the deviously shifting metrics of Sam I Am – a dedication to an Upper West Side character from Zhurbin’s Columbus Avenue neighborhood – as well as a haunting Transylvanian theme, a dizzyingly polyrhythmic dance, and a broodingly stunning version of the old folk song Black Is the Color, Zhurbin’s wife Inna Barmash bringing the lights down with her plaintive vocals while Farrell switched to piano and met her intensity head-on, note for note. They closed with the similarly poignant, imploringly crescendoing Mnemosyne, the title track from the band’s previous album, Barmash leading the rising waves of angst. It was a far cry from the delirious dance party they’d just given the kids and testament to the ability of this group to switch gears in a split second and make it seem completely natural. Then again, if film music is your stock in trade, as it is with this band, that’s second nature.
“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.