Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Alto Sax Powerhouse Miguel Zenon Salutes a Salsa Icon with an Intense, Dynamic Album and a Stand at the Jazz Standard

The line between good salsa and good jazz has alway been blurry. Although jazz these days tends to be less rhythmically straightforward, the best salsa bands have always been able to jam with as much imagination as any straight-up jazz act. So it’s no surprise that as a kid growing up in Puerto Rico, Miguel Zenon was blown away when first intoduced to the music of Ismael “Maelo” Rivera. Rivera brought a percussionist’s polyrhythmic complexity to his vocals: essentially, he was a jazz guy singing salsa. A couple of decades after that epiphany, Zenon has made an album, Sonero – streaming at Bandcamp – in tribute to the iconic salsero. In a career full of powerful, relevant albums, this is one of the best Zenon’s ever made. The fiery, profoundly innovative alto saxophonist and his quartet on the album – pianist Luis Perdomo, bassist Hans Glawischnig and drummer Henry Cole – will be celebrating the record release at the Jazz Standard with a stand this Sept 12-15. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 PM; cover is $30.

The pleasantly low-key bit of an intro – including a Rivera vocal sample – doesn’t offer a hint of how radically Zenon and the band are going to reinvent these old songs, a mix of Rivera’s hits and lesser-known material. After a similarly cheery if much knottier opening, Perdomo’s launch into an ominous, percussive attack on the keys in Quítate de La Vía, Perico sets up a deliciously bracing, modal Zenon solo…and then the sun bursts through the clouds, the band finally bringing the tune full circle.

Las Tumbas – originally a tale about Rivera being behind bars – shifts from Perdomo’s rippling bittersweetness to Zenon’s airy, wistful lines as the bass and drums rise subtly from a muted conga-like pulse to more emphatic syncopation and another gritty Zenon crescendo. He takes Bobby Capo’s El Negro Bembón – a chronicle of the racist murder of a black man – through bustling variations on a quasi-calypso theme over Perdomo’s circling, stabbing chords, to a series of agitated crescendos and finally a riveting, interlocking,  animated yet troubled coda.

La Gata Montesa – a portrait of a real she-devil – is a burner, the bandleader’s relentlessly edgy spirals and leaps over the band’s circling, trickily emphatic syncopation. Anchored by Perdomo’s somber, eerie riffs, Traigo Salsa is the closest thing to straight-up oldschool salsa dura here, although Cole takes plenty of devious metric liberties as Zenon parses dark blues and sharp-fanged modes.

Las Caras Lindas is equal parts sparkling beauty and windswept angst, at least until an ostentatious, rapidfire, Dizzy Gillespie-esque blend of tropicalia and hard bop. Zenon’s mournful melismas and Perdomo’s funeral-bell piano make Hola the album’s arguably most gorgeous number. Colobó has come a long way since Rivera took a poem written for him on a turtle shell by a fisherman fan and made a bomba out of it. Glawischnig propels this joyous romp with a spring-loaded bounce.

The quartet return to brooding balladry with Si Te Contara and close the album with El Nazareno, saluting Rivera’s mystical side with a contrast of uneasy close harmonies from the piano beneath sailing sax lines: Cole’s evocation of a clattering timbale solo is the icing on the cake. Zenon has never played more eclectically, nor Perdomo more tersely, than each does here: what a great band, what a great album. Even the liner notes are very informative.

September 8, 2019 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Mighty, Epic Individualist Fabian Almazan Plays the Jazz Gallery This Friday Night

As a composer and pianist, Fabian Almazan has no fear of epic grandeur, big statements or rich melodicism. He doesn’t limit himself to acoustic piano, or to traditional postbop tunesmithing either. As a bandleader, he hasn’t been as ubiquitous lately as he was a couple of years ago when he released his mighty Alcanza Suite, which is streaming at Bandcamp. He’s back out in front of his own trio this Friday night, March 1 at the Jazz Gallery, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM. Cover is $25.

While there’s no telling which direction Almazan is going to go in next – he’s done everything from reinventing Shostakovich string quartets in a jazz context, to playing in starry space-jazz band Bryan & the Aardvarks – the Alcanza Suite is his magnum opus so far. There’s never been anything quite like it, a towering, symphonic masterpiece that draws equally on jazz and neoromanticism while tackling many sobering themes, from the trials facing immigrants to the bright of existentialism. The ensemble here rise to the many demands on their technique, a string quartet of Megan Gould and Tomoko Omura on violins, Karen Waltuch on viola and Noah Hoffeld on cello bolstered by Camila Meza on guitar and vocals, Linda May Han Oh on bass and Henry Cole on drums alongside the bandleader.

Meza sings calmly amidst the sudden gusts of the opening number, Vida Absurda y Bella (Absurd and Beautiful Life), Almazan’s piano a frenzy of climbs and spirals in tandem with Cole’s pummeling attack. Astor Piazzolla at his most adventurous seems to be a reference point.

The second movement, Marea Baja (Low Tide) is a thoughtful nocturne, Meza’s tender vocal over wary strings, Almazan picking up the pace with his circling rivulets. As Meza moves further back in the mix, she grows more forceful. From there, Almazan’s carnivalesque chromatics enter and then give way to a big, hypnotically insistent crescendo.

Verla (Seeing It, “It”) being truth, begins as a tone poem and then becomes a moody, austere string quartet piece: this particular truth seems hard to bear. Almazan follows it with a brief solo piano passage that shifts from gentle lustre to disquiet; later on, Oh and Cole also get to contribute unaccompanied solos.

Meza returns to the mic for Mas, a fervent hope for better circumstances over airy, distantly blues-tinged atmospherics that builds toward towering angst with Almazan’s chromatic cascades.

Oh pounces and bubbles within the vast, catchy riffage of Tribu T9, Meza’s vocalese adding calm contrast to Almazan’s energetic two-handed polyrhythms. 

Rising from somber belltones to emphatically spaced minimalist gravitas, Oh’s solo introduces the sixth movement, Cazador Antiguo (Ancient Hunter). Its stern, mechanical, martial drive and creepy helicopter effects juxtapose with Meza’s resolutely sailing vocals, segueing into Pater Familias. A coming-of-age narrative without words, it’s a return to the bright/shadowy dynamic between Meza and the rest of the band. Almazan cuts loose with his most gorgeously glittery solo of the entire record before a grim march returns, then gives way to a jubilant Meza coda.

Este Lugar (This Place) is the suite’s most epic segment, a lush, dynamically shifting maze of counterpoint, Meza giving voice to immigrant hopes and crushing realities: the return to the relentless march theme packs a wallop. Marea Alta (High Tide) is the suite’s towering coda, Meza’s guitar chords finally punching through the symphonic, polyrhythmic web. Whether you consider this classical music, minimalism or jazz, or all of the above, this album is pretty much unrivalled, in terms of both towering majesty and social relevance, over the last couple of years,.

February 25, 2019 Posted by | classical music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ryan Keberle & Catharsis Play Elegantly Defiant Protest Jazz

Last night Ryan Keberle & Catharsis returned from their latest US tour to play a sold-out show at Cornelia Street Cafe. The trombonist/multi-instrumentalist/composer has made a name for himself as an electrifying, intensely thoughtful soloist and has played with every major New York big band, most notably the Maria Schneider Orchestra. He’s one of the few musicians to write articulately about reaching the elusive “zone” that most players find themselves searching for words to explain. But his best work may be his own compositions.

Drummer Henry Cole subtly shifted the opening number, Quintessence, from an airconditioned swing toward sweaty New Orleans territory as the bandleader hit a Rubik’s Cube of syncopation, tenor saxophonist Scott Robinson bringing back the breeze as Keberle switched to melodica and played high, airy chords. Then he went back to trombone to duel it out with Robinson.

Guitarist Camila Meza’a disarmingly direct, pensively poignant vocalese mingled within and then quickly rose out of a lulling haze of trombone and sax as the next number, Uruguayan composer Jorge Drexler’s El Otro Lado Del Rio slowly coalesced into warmly intimate tropicalia lit up with a psychedelically pulsing lattice of counterrhythms. Its uneasy border-crossing metaphors foreshadowed much of what was to come.

Cole took what might be this year’s funniest drum solo to open Ellington’s Big Kick Blues – from Keberle’s 2013 album Music Is Emotion – moving the “up” beat around like a three-card monte dealer. The band’s slice-and-dice syncopation kept a wry suspense going, Meza doubling her guitar and vocal lines, Cole finally straightening out the groove as Robinson supplied a terse trumpet solo before returning to sax. Who knew that the irrepressibly versatile multi-multi-reedman was also an adept brass player, Keberle enthused.

He explained that his next album as a leader would be an album of protest music, and gave a shout-out to Ornette Coleman for his role as a revolutionary. Then the band followed with an Ornette-inspired original built on propulsive, insistent, stairstepping phrases, Meza’s carefree vocalese in stark contrast, Keberle’s steady, emphatically bluesy solo building to a biting crescendo.

Meza sang the night’s most compelling and relevant number, Become the Water, the “magnum opus from the new record,” as Keberle put it. “Enough is enough!” he mused exasperatedly. “We want to use our music to bring change, hopefully in some small way.” In this rousing challenge to find compassion and defy the forces of evil, Meza stood her ground as the soaring, chromatic choruses kicked in, Keberle’s expansively moody piano chords serving as anchor as Robinson’s soaring sax spoke truth to power. More musicians should be doing this.

The Cornelia is Keberle’s Manhattan home base with this crew; watch this space for upcoming dates there or at his frequent Brooklyn haunt, Barbes.

March 22, 2017 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment