Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Mighty, Majestically Orchestrated, Ambitious Album and a Vanguard Stand This Week From Alto Saxophone Titan MIguel Zenon

You might not expect Miguel Zenon to open his latest album with a cantabile pastorale, but that’s exactly what he’s done. The alto saxophonist has made some amazing records over the years – his smoldering Oye! Live in Puerto Rico from 2013 is a favorite – but his most recent one is his most ambitious yet. You could say that Yo Soy la Tradicion is his Sketches of Spain, a collaboration with the magical, microtonally-inclined Spektral Quartet streaming at their music page.

Jazz sax and strings have a history that dates back to Charlie Parker; this is a lot closer to Astor Piazzolla at his most adventurous, or Bartok, than orchestrated swing. Zenon has yet another weeklong stand at the Vanguard starting tomorrow, March 12 with his quartet and continuing through the 17th, with sets at 8 and 10:30.

The Spektral Quartet – violinists Clara Lyon and Maeve Feinberg, violist Doyle Armbrust and cellist Russell Rolen – open the album with the rather stark, almost severely precise intro to Rosario, inspired by the Catholic rosary tradition; then Zenon flips the script and builds a bubbly dance overhead that brings to mind the similarly paradigm-shifting work of Argentine bandoneonist JP Jofre. It’s catchy, almost to the point of sentimentality.

Cadenas (Chains) draws on European 20th century minimalism as well as Puerto Rican line dances, the strings’ hypnotic, insistent acerbity balancing Zenon’s folksy, airy delivery. Then the sax and quartet switch roles, a neat touch.

Yumac may have roots in rural Puerto Rican folk music – the ttile is the town of Camuy, home to popular 50s songwriter German Rosario, spelled backwards – but the music comes across as a more harmonically complex take on Ernesto Lecuona’s anthemic mashup of Afro-Cuban themes and western classical orchestration.

Milagrosa is more balmy, an unexpectedly successful mashup of spaciously sequenced postbop sax and alternately rhythmic and lush string passages, with a crescendo midway through that’s as majestic as anything Zenon has ever written.

The album’s most gorgeous track is Viejo, shifting from troubled, massed Julia Wolfe-like insistence, to an unabashedly lyrical ballad with an elegaic cello solo followed by Zenon’s broodingly wafting melody. Zenon’s tone is more biting than Paul Desmond’s, but the lyricism here is very similar.

If Bartok had a thing for Spain instead of Tunisia, he might have written Cadenza: there are also echoes of wistul, uneasy Debussy. Again, Zenon brightens the ambience, this time with flamenco allusions. Imagine Ligeti trying to reduce a flamenco tune to simplest terms: that’s the outro.

The album’s most epic track is Promesa, a diptych of sorts that refers to the Catholic festival of the Three Kings. A pensive cello solo takes centerstage over a lush backdrop that recedes to a steady, minimalist pulse, Zenon building the longest solo here from gentle pastoral colors to lively, blues-tinged spirals. Then the atmosphere shifts to artfully pulsing variations on a lively alguinaldo jibaro country dance theme.

Piazzolla, or for that matter, Lecuona would have been proud to have written the anthemic final number, based on a variant of that style from the town of Villalba. Obviously, Zenon’s Vanguard stand this week isn’t likely to showcase a lot of this material; on the other hand, with a guy who’s been known to reinvent classic Sylvia Rexach boleros, you never know.

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March 11, 2019 Posted by | classical music, jazz, latin music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

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