Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Lush, Lively, Inventive Cuban String Sounds From the Toomai String Quintet

Last night at Symphony Space, the Toomai String Quintet played an irrepressibly dancing album release show for their new one, Cuerdas Cubanas, which would have made Ernesto Lecuona proud. The “Cuban Gershwin,” as bandleader and bassist Andrew Roitstein aptly characterized him, is well represented on the record and likewise in the concert program, a mix of elegantly serpentine themes with the Cuban composer’s signature blend of European classical, flamenco, Romany and indigenous sounds.

Cellist Hamilton Berry grinningly told the crowd that Roitstein’s new arrangements, many of them based on material originally written for piano or orchestra, were pretty awesome, and he wasn’t kidding. Roitstein has an obvious affinity for Lecuona’s work, and his bandmates  – who also include violinists Emilie-Anne Gendron and Alex Fortes and violist Erin Wight – reveled in his nifty exchanges of phrases and contrapuntal voicings.

You might not think that a singer who’s made a career in opera, as Roitstein’s sister Alina has, would necessarily be suited to singing salsa, but she also obviously gravitates toward this music. A magnetic presence in front of the band, swinging her hips and negotiating the lyrics in impressively fluent Spanish, she delivered cheery and frequently coy versions of hits made famous by Celia Cruz, Tito Puente and others.

A slinky, loopy bass and cello interweave set up Gendron’s plaintive vibrato in the night’s lilting, opening instrumental, La Comparsa. True to its title, Zamba Gitana had emphatic Romany riffage and some neat handoffs between the two violinists. The exchanges between band members were even more incisive in the phantasmagorical Gitanerias, which the group began as a real danse macabre.

There were also plenty of lighthearted moments in the set, including but hardly limited to a jaunty santeria dance, an animated thicket of pizzicato in Lecuona’s En Tres Por Cuatro, and the balmy nocturnal ambience of Manuel Ponce’s Plenilunio. There was also an interlude where a small battalion of young string players who’d been workshopping Cuban music with the quintet joined them and added extra ballast to the Israel “Cachao” Lopez hit A Gozar Con Mi Combo. Solos are still a work in progress for these kids, but when they played along with the rest of the band, the music was absolutely seamless.

The quintet encored with Lecuona’s Andalucia, shifting from uneasily acerbic Arabic-flavored chromatics to an indomitable, triumphant sway. It’s hard to think of a more perfect way to close such an eclectically enjoyable show. The Toomai String Quintet have a weekly Saturday 6 PM residency at Barbes coming up this September, where you will undoubtedly get many opportunities to hear a lot of this material.

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June 11, 2018 Posted by | classical music, concert, latin music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Brilliant, Intense Solo Improvisation from Arturo O’Farrill

On a cold, windy evening in October of last year, pianist Arturo O’Farrill went into the Noguchi Museum in Queens, where, amidst the sculptures, he was inspired to record an album of solo piano improvisations, “the scariest thing a pianist can do,” as he puts it. O’Farrill feels an outsider’s cameraderie with Isamu Noguchi’s work: the two artists have similarly polyglot backgrounds and affinities for destroying boundaries. To call this recording, titled The Noguchi Sessions, a vigorous blend of third-stream jazz with latin inflections, would be accurate in a very broad sense but does not remotely do it justice. To call it a major work, one of the most important and brilliant albums released this year runs the risk of overhyping it. Yet gravitas is one of O’Farrill’s defining traits, along with a polymath’s ravenousness for ideas. O’Farrill is a big-picture guy: time and time again, he gets it. Ernesto Lecuona wrote Siboney in memory of a people originally indigenous to Cuba: O’Farrill reaches into it deeply and pulls out a requiem. Yet O’Farrill’s take also eventually hits a triumphant swell, and goes out with a flourish: he wants these people to be remembered for their humanity. His take on Mingus’ Jelly Roll is a lot more wry than it is sly: Mingus knew the tragedy in Jelly Roll Morton’s life, and O’Farrill knows that too, his bitingly precise righthand runs adding irony over the ragtime exuberance. This humanity is perhaps most vivid here on the sardonic Alisonia, juxtaposing O’Farrill as manic bad cop versus his wife’s steady resilience. She’s portrayed as the calm center of the storm here, and she wins in the end: much as he blusters and muddies the waters (with a pummeling low lefthand drive here), she’s obviously the rock in his life. A take of Obsesion, the salsa jazz classic, is obsessive to the extreme, up so close and personal and frantic that it’s worrisome! And Mi Vida, dedicated to O’Farrill’s beloved aunt and uncle, portrays the couple very much together through thick and thin, even as a wary modal melody is introduced via the lefthand again – O’Farrill isn’t afraid to plunge into those depths, here or anywhere else.

It’s especially interesting to hear him play solo in light of his best-known work as leader of the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra. His approach is steady, businesslike, relentlessly intense, as it pretty much always it. He takes his time getting into the opening track, The Sun at Midnight, distantly Asian-tinged clusters evoking an in-the-moment theme; otherwise, the album is pretty straight-ahead. He doesn’t employ much rubato, instead finding the occasional opportunity to add space and distance. And when he hits a cadenza, or a rare, brutal explosion of raw noise, the effect packs a wallop. It’s exactly what you would expect from a first-rate big band guy: he picks his spots and makes them count. As usual, O’Farrill isn’t afraid to take a stand, represented here by The Delusion of the Greedy, juxtaposing squirrelly, mechanical, conspiratorially lockstep righthand runs against a serioso bluesiness that gains traction just as the 99% are gaining traction against the robber barons among us – whose days are numbered, as this piece makes ineluctably clear. His take on Oh Susannah reaches to reclaim the melody from its repugnant minstrel origins: unlike the Dave Brubeck version, O’Farrill interpolates snatches of the tune amidst variations that run from blithe to practically macabre. And In Whom, dedicated to O’Farrill’s talented drummer son Zachary, incorporates both distantly anxious, Debussy-tinged ripples as well as a wry bittersweetness that evokes Donald Fagen at his peak.

There’s also a matter-of-factly crescendoing improvisation on I Had a Secret Love; a nimbly spun version of Danny Boy that works its way out expansively and nostalgically, dedicated to the heroes of 9/11; and an alternately tender and energetic take of Randy Weston’s Little Niles. This is not light music by any stretch of the imagination: it’s something to go deeply into and spend some time with because it will move you profoundly if you let it. A lock for one of 2012’s best albums.

July 13, 2012 Posted by | jazz, latin music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment