Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Another Enigmatic, Devious Album From Mr. Ho

Mr. Ho’s Orchestrotica began as an Esquivel cover project and quickly expanded to become a vehicle for multi-instrumentalist/percussionist bandleader Brian O’Neill’s erudite grooves, part exotica lounge band, part droll Raymond Scott-esque third-stream ensemble and once in awhile, expanding to become an explosive big band. With the smaller unit, it continues to amaze how big and lush a sound O’Neill gets out of a simple vibraphone/flute/bass/drums quartet. Their first album, a collection of Esquivel tunes, was a mixed bag; their second, Third River Rangoon, a richly woozy, psychedelic glide down a jungle river of the mind. Their third, Where Here Meets There is a suite, more or less: while the compositions don’t segue from one into another, O’Neill sets a mood immediately and maintains it, hypnotic and resonant yet a lot more rhythmic than their previous effort.

The opening track, Chiseling Music, introduces the nebulous, enigmatically minimalist feel that dominates most of these compositions, guest Tev Stevig’s spiky tanbur contrasting with balmy atmospherics. Beginning with echoey hand drum and then a slowly winding vibraphone solo, Sansaz dances, but as if underwater, finally emerging to come face-to-face with the cold, distant menace of that tanbur again. Maracatune for Chalco works a vamping, Esquivelic low-versus-high contrast, bass handling some of the highs, flute some of the lows as it grows more kinetic and then suddenly eerie as percussionist Shane Shanahan comes to the foreground.

Would You Like Bongos with That Fugue? is O’Neill in droll third-stream mode, a dancing Jason Davis bass solo at its center as the atmospherics recede back into the mist. Ritual Mallett Dance – inspired by paradigm-shifting percussionist Chano Pozo, with distant ecchoes of flamenco and cha-cha – mashes up de Falla’s Ritual Fire Dance and Dizzy Gillespie’s Guachi Guaro. They follow that with a Gershwin triptych that makes bouncy bossa out of ragtime, finally sending Geni Skendo’s flute soaring skyward, Peggy Lee’s Siamese Cat Song making a somewhat predictably cartoonish appearance midway through. The album ends with a masterfully misterioso, brooding take of Cal Tjader’s Black Orchid, Stevig managing to fire off an oud solo that doesn’t sound Middle Eastern, looping bass and then ambient flute maintaining a suspenseful edge as O’Neill’s vibes get busy. Adding to the fact that this a fascinating and often very fun album is that there is no band on the planet that sounds remotely like Mr. Ho’s Orchestrotica – not even any of those long-defunct Esquivel ensembles who inspired them.

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November 15, 2013 Posted by | jazz, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Mr. Ho’s Orchestrotica Plays a Rare Big Band Show of Ludicrously Fun Esquivel Tunes

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.

September 20, 2013 Posted by | concert, jazz, latin music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Boston Band Unearths Long-Lost Esquivel Big Band Charts: Why?

Now we go from the sublime to the ridiculous. Back in Mexico in the 1950s, Juan Garcia Esquivel must have been smoking some seriously generalissimo-grade pot. Like him or not, there’s no denying the psychedelic aspect of his music. The question is, was it any good? Mr. Ho’s Orchestrotica – an Either/Orchestra spinoff – offers one possible answer. On their new, period-perfect The Unforgettable Sounds of Esquivel, a collection of newly rediscovered big-band arrangements by the crazed, vaudevillian Mad Men era bandleader, they’re obviously having a great time. Which on one level is understandable: from a musician’s point of view, any time you get to use a bass marimba, or punctuate a big band chart with a pedal steel cadenza, it’s nothing if not a jolt to the senses. But some of this is so cheesy that it calls into question whether or not Esquivel actually liked these songs – or if he even liked jazz, or music, at all.

It’s important not to confuse an artist or their work with their fan base. It makes no more sense to associate Esquivel with the first-wave trendoids who fueled his blip of a resurgence in the early 90s than it does to blame Radiohead for the pitchfork/stereogum contingent who worship them. Yet it makes sense that trendoids would fall in love with Esquivel’s “bachelor pad” stylings. Much as Esquivel’s production was cutting-edge, with all those crazy sound effects, all too often it’s style over substance, something that dovetails perfectly with a trendoid esthetic (if you buy the argument that the words “trendoid” and “esthetic” belong in the same sentence). There are moments here that are painfully kitschy – again, the hallmark of a trendoid being an embrace of all things shallow and stupid. But lurking beneath these songs’ whizbang, Keystone Kops vibe is a snotty cynicism that borders on punk. Esquivel’s arrangements are such complete bastardizations that they’re practically hostile. Would Esquivel have preferred ranchera ballads, or norteno accordion music? Or anything other than popular 50s jazz themes? At times, it would seem so. Taken as satire, much of this is irresistibly funny.

Andalucia barrels along at a breakneck pace with snarky little piano glissandos and a kettledrum roll out. Night and Day features a brief fugue between blazing brass and the steel guitar of Tim Obetz, with random bits of lyrics that predate Lee “Scratch” Perry and dub by twenty years. The barely two-minute version of Take the A Train, like much else here, owes a debt to Spike Jones with its tribal percussion and barking horns that winds down into jungly ambience fueled by Rusty Scott’s organ. Boulevard of Broken Dreams is reinvented as a cartoonish cha-cha, slinking along with the scrape of a guacharaca, doot-doot-doot vocals and finally an exuberant Yaure Muniz trumpet solo followed by a surprisingly subdued one on piano by Mr. Ho himself. With its absurdly garish horn chart, Music Makers has gruff baritone sax trading riffs impishly with the steel. And the girlie chorus on Frenesi are clearly unable to keep a straight face as they doot-doot-doot amidst the crazed doublestops of the high brass.

The rest of the album is a mixed bag. Sentimental Journey is simply unlistenable, and Mini Skirt, a familiar theme for surf music fans, hasn’t aged well – in the Cee-Lo Green era, those wolf-whistles are annoyingly cutesy. The three remaining tracks, Let’s Dance, Dancing in the Dark and the surprisingly straight-up, genially bluesy Street Scene are more good-naturedly amusing: lose the steel guitar, the funeral parlor organ and those ridiculous, blaring brass crescendos and what you’d be left with is just plain good big band jazz. Whether the rest of this is jazz, or what it is, is up to you to figure out. Maybe it’s best not to: like Sartre said, once you name something, you kill it.

December 5, 2010 Posted by | jazz, latin music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment