Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Three Vastly Different New Spins on Afro-Cuban Music

For those of you in el barrio – or your own private barrio – the Spanish Harlem Orchestra’s latest album Viva La Tradicion is old news (it came out in September). If you missed it, it’s a treat for anyone with fond memories of the Fania era. Rather than looking forward, it looks back, sometimes as far back as the Pedro Flores classic Linda, represented here with a fast slinky bounce. It’s sort of a collection of new and vintage salsa with a conscious theme: pride of ownership. The Orchestra do not take their name, or the historical weight it carries, in vain, something you would expect from a cast of some of the best latin players in the business, many of them Tito Puente vets. None other than Paul Simon served as co-executive producer. As exemplified by the opening track, written by Cuban bandleader Manuel Simonet, this is salsa dura with modern production values. The blazing brass of trombonists Jimmy Bosch and Dan Reagan and trumpeters Hector Colon and John Walsh sends the conscious dance tune Mi Herencia Latina off into a fiery Cuban sunset. Mitch Frohman’s baritone sax spirals out of an expansive piano solo by bandleader Oscar Hernandez on the jazziest cut here, Rumba Urbana. Salsa vet Gil Lopez, who arranged much of this, has a lush, lyrical version of his ballad Nuestra Cancion here; there are also a couple of slow cha-cha’s, the bolero-flavored, suspenseful La Fiesta Empezo and the aptly swinging El Negro Tiene Tumbao that closes the album, with guest vocals from Isaac Delgado. The percussion trio of Luisito Quintero on timbales, George Delgado on congas and Jorge Gonzalez on bongos rumble, clatter and groove behind the snaky, melodic bass pulse of Gerardo Madera.

Straight from Cuba comes alto saxophone phenom and bandleader Michel Herrera, with a far more modern sound. Although rooted in Afro-Cuban rhythms, especially clave, he and his band – the core includes Roger Riso on keys, Julio Cesar Gonzales on bass, Hector Quintana on guitar, Ismel Witnall on percussion, Yissi Garcia on drums and Eduardo Sandoval on trombone – shoot for a sound that’s jazzier and more deliberately cerebral. His compositions shift shape, sometimes on a dime, go doublespeed, go back in time eighty years (once with a beautifully rustic percussion-and-piano interlude) and give his band – especially trumpeter Julio Regal, whose work with a mute packs a thoughtfully crescendoing punch – a wide playing field. Pequena Historia, the first full-length track on his new album En La Espera, sets buoyant horns over a funky rhythm section, Herrera’s sax moving from balminess to bluster, followed by an eerily fluid, portamento-ish electric organ solo. The slinky clave groove Estaciones surprisingly serves as a launching pad for the most boisterous, bop-tinged playing here; with its sizzling piano cascades, soul-flavored electric guitar and tricky polyrhythms, the title track attests to Herrera’s wide-ranging eclecticism. Sometimes he gets carried away: the electric instruments lend an unwanted fusiony feel on occasion, and the one “R&B” flavored vocal number here is a bad joke. Still in his twenties, Herrera is a winner (and now a judge) of the Cuban Joven Jazz competition: he caught the eye of Wynton Marsalis, who’s become a sort of mentor. As the US hopefully moves toward normalizing relations with Cuba, Herrera and his colleagues deserve more of a presence here: this is an auspicious look at a scene that’s been percolating too far under the radar.

Finally, just in time for the Festival of Lights, there’s Celebrations, by Eugene Marlow’s Heritage Ensemble: latinized versions of familiar and not-so-familiar themes for Chanukah and Purim. Hybrids like this are actually more common than you might think – we gave the thumbs-up to the latest album by Kat Parra & the Sephardic Music Experience early this year – and Jews have long played an important role in latin music, especially jazz (Larry Harlow springs to mind). Here pianist Marlow is joined by legendary latin bandleader Bobby Sanabria on drums, Frank Wagner on bass, Cristian Rivera on percussion and Michael Hashim on alto and soprano sax, with pianist Nada Loutfi guesting on a brooding, expansively swinging Marlow original.

Hashim, in particular, gives these rearrangements a sly, genial bounce. Chanukah, O Chanukah gets a funky pulse and then it swings, down to just baroque-tinged piano rivulets. The famous dreidel theme is reinvented as a feisty rhumba with honking sax and inspired contributions from everyone. A Purim melody becomes a Brubeck-esque ballad, goes psychedelic with Rhodes piano and then hits a disco groove. An old Talmudic melody gets a warily nocturnal art-rock piano arrangement; the final number, seemingly a reprise of the opening theme, has a swinging Slaughter on Tenth Avenue vibe. The band are obviously having great fun playing hide and seek with the melodies to the point where they’re completely unrecognizable: all this is as fun as it is creative. Although professionally produced, Marlow’s five-minute spoken-word “explanation” of the band on the last track gives the cd the feel of a demo, an audio press kit for those who might be interested in hiring the band for a simcha. It would have been more effective – not to mention less expensive – to include this in, say, a press release, or the cd booklet.

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December 2, 2010 Posted by | jazz, latin music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment