Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Vividly Symphonic, Epic Big Band Album and a Chinatown Gig From Pianist Manuel Valera

Pianist Manuel Valera has been a reliably tuneful fixture on the New York jazz stage, best known for his monthly residency with his New Cuban Express at Terraza 7, which ran for years until live music was criminalized here in 2020. His latest big band album, Distancia, counts as one of the millions which would have been released sometime that year if we all hadn’t been rudely interrupted. The good news is that he managed to finish it – that fall, restrictions be damned – and it’s streaming at Spotify. Valera and his New Cuban Express are at the Django on Jan 10 at 7 PM; cover is $25. For those who want to make a whole night of it, the 10:30 PM act, Sonido Costeno, play fiery guitar-fueled salsa dura and are also a lot of fun.

Like a lot of his countrymen, Valera has both a lyrical neoromantic side and a love for slinky beats, and his arrangements are nothing short of symphonic. Pretty much everything here is past ten minutes or close to it. He opens the record with Expectativas, the percussion answering the trombones to set up a catchy modal piano vamp and some cleverly lush exchanges by massed brass. Soprano saxophonist Charles Pillow ranges from allusive chromatics to a wicked downward spiral in a tantalizingly brief solo; trumpeter Brian Pareschi takes his time choosing his spots, then backing away for a light-fingered Samuel Torres conga solo artfully echoed by drummer Jimmy Macbride with a flick of his cymbals. It sets the stage for the rest of this absolutely brilliant, consistently gorgeous album.

The riffage in the interplay among the brass in the second number, Gemini, is a lot punchier, Valera hinting at a rhythmic shift before the group backs off for a cheery, spaciously paced Pareschi solo matched by baritone saxophonist Andrew Gutauskas. Valera keeps the pulse going with an incisive, rhythmic solo as Macbride shadows him; the band bring the tune full circle, guitarist Alex Goodman tantalizing with his pensive solo out.

Camila Meza’s signature lustrous vocalese mingles within catchy, fugal brass to introduce From Afar, the group developing a slow, orchestral sway, dipping to a spare, somewhat wistful trumpet solo. The way Valera sneaks Meza and the band back up into the mix is as artful as it is unselfconsciously gorgeous. It ends unresolved.

The tradeoffs are faster and lighter in Pathways: it’s a goodnatured joust, up to a meticulously articulated Valera break and a flurrying Michael Thomas alto sax solo. Meza carries the big riff through a fleeting piano/alto conversation. The horns give way to a moody moment as From the Ashes grows into a nimbly orchestrated salsa tune, but without the usual rumble on the low end. Trombonist Matt Macdonald flickers allusively; Valera tumbles and ripples, Macbride firing off a shower of cymbals. Pillow punches in as the forward drive grows funkier; the bandleader’s sudden turn toward the shadows will grab you by surprise. Lots of that on this record.

Impressionistic Romance is intriguingly allusive and tinged with the High Romantic, fueled by Valera’s steady cascades, a hint of a grim march and Bernard Herrmann. Echo effects move into the center as the low brass simmers and punches, Valera following a determined, unresolved tangent that the horns bring back to an uneasy landing.

Valera stays in brooding mode to open the album’s title track, Pillow pushing the group toward a warmer morning theme, then taking a more pensive break. Valera teams up with singer Bogna Kicinska’s resonant vocalese to build a glistening nocturnal tableau on the way out. He winds up the album where he started with the steady counterpoint and implied, vampy salsa groove of Remembere. It’s more straight-up big band jazz than it is traditionally Cuban; whatever the case, this is one of the most delicious big band albums of recent months.

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January 7, 2023 Posted by | jazz, latin music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Lush, Kinetic, Imaginatively Purist New Big Band Jazz From Dan Pugach’s Nonet Plus One

How do you get the most bang for your buck, to make a handful of musicians sound like a whole orchestra? Composers and arrangers have been using every trick in the book to do that since the Middle Ages. One guy who’s particularly good at it is drummer/bandleader Dan Pugach, whose retro style harks back to the 60s and the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis big band. Over the past couple of years, Pugach’s Nonet Plus One have refined that concept, gigging all over New York. They’re playing the album release show for their debut album tonight, May 18 at 10 PM at their usual hang, 55 Bar.

The opening track, Brooklyn Blues, is definitely bluesy, but with an irrepressible New Orleans flair. Pugach likes short solos to keep things tight and purposeful: tenor saxophonist Jeremy Powell and trombonist Mike Fahie get gritty and lowdown while Jorn Swart’s piano bubbles up occasionally amid lushly brassy flares from the rest of the group.

Coming Here opens with a comfortable, late-night sweep anchored by Carmen Staaf’s glimmering piano, punctuated by gusts from throughout the band, trumpeter Ingrid Jensen soaring triumphantly and lyrically, Powell more pensive against Staaf’s hypnotic, emphatic attack. The tightly chattering outro, held down by bassist Tamir Shmerling, baritone saxophonist Andrew Gutauskas and bass trombonist Jen Hinkle, is a tasty surprise.

You wouldn’t think a big band version of the Dolly Parton classic Jolene would work, but this group’s not-so-secret weapon, singer Nicole Zuraitis, gives it a Laura Nyro-like intensity as the group punch in and out throughout Pugach’s darkly latin-tinged arrangement. Staaf’s spiraling, serioso chromatics are spot on, Jensen taking that intensity to redline.

Andrew Gould’s optimistic alto sax and David Smith’s catchy, fluttering trumpet solo take centerstage in Zelda, a slow, swaying ballad. Individual and group voices burst in and out of Belo’s Bellow over Pugach’s samba-funk groove, bolstered by Bernardo Aguilar’s pandeiro. Then they reinvent Chick Corea’s Crystal Silence as blustery, arioso tropicalia, Zuraitis’ dramatic vocal flights and Gould’s bluesy alto over Swart’s terse, brooding piano and Pugach’s lush chart and cymbals.

Likewise, Pugach’s piano-based arrangement of Quincy Jones’ Love Dance gives it a welcome organic feel. Zuraitis’ Our Blues gets a powerhouse arrangement to match her wry hokum-inspired lyrics and defiant delivery: “You’re much more clever when you shut your mouth,” she advises. Smith’s sudden crescendo, using Swart’s piano as a launching pad early during the subtle syncopations of Discourse This might be the album’s high point. Keeping a large ensemble together is an awful lot of work, but it’s understandable why a cast of musicians of this caliber would relish playing Pugach’s inventively purist charts.

May 18, 2018 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment