Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Poignancy and Exhilaration with Claudia Acuña at Birdland

There was a point last night during her first set of a four-night stand at Birdland where singer Claudia Acuña started pogoing across the stage. She got as far as guitarist Juancho Herrera’s pedalboard before she ran out of room and had to chill out a little. If you’d been on that stage with that band and that setlist, you would have been just as ecstatic – but you wouldn’t have sung as rivetingly as she did.

Because the majority of this particular setlist was hers. She opened with a punchy take of Hey, a no-nonsense empowerment anthem for women everywhere and closed with a shamanic, enveloping take of her mentor Abbey Lincoln’s Holy Earth. In between, she mixed a couple of acerbic Lincoln tunes and a knowingly angst-fueled take of Jimmy Van Heusen’s But Beautiful in with a gorgeously lyrical mix of songs from her new album Turning Pages.

Acuña gets all sorts of props for her often shatteringly direct alto voice, but here the crowd was just as blown away by her songwriting and the quality of the band. Pianist Pablo Vergara spun intricate, plaintive neoromantic filigrees, with a couple of starry solos as openers. Behind the kit, Yayo Serka played what seemed to be both sides of a conspiratorial talking drum interlude to start one number, underscored much of the material with a subtle clave and went way back to the banks of the Nile to foreshadow the end of the set.

Starting on Fender and finishing on upright, bassist Carlos Henderson’s minutely nuanced touch matched the bandleader’s subtlety, notably with his allusions to the steady propulsion of Bob Marley’s Exodus throughout an understatedly dancing take of Futuro, one of the new record’s standout tracks. Acuña explained that she’d written it to her yet-unborn son and then sang with hushed joy about how much she was looking forward to seeing him “Dancing through the constellations, and through the onion and garlic patch. That translation from the Spanish is less poetic  than the actual lyric.

The high point of the new album, and arguably the show as well, was the poignant, brooding anthem Aguita de Corazon. Lowlit by Herrera’s spare accents and Vergara’s rippling angst, the wounded payoff packed a wallop whenever the chorus came around. “I’m from Chile,” Acuña explained. “We have a tea for everything. You have a broken heart? We have a tea for that too.” It was strong and potent medicine in this group’s hands, guest Gregoire Maret’s harmonica reaching an unexpectedly wrenching coda after he’d taken his time, going deeper into the blues as the narrative unfolded.

His animated exchanges with Acuña’s scatting on the next number were more lighthearted, and a lot of fun. But ultimately, depth and emotional impact is what she’s all about, and she delivered all of that, whether the wistful hope of Tres Deseos – a wish song times three, basically – and Lincoln’s The World Is Falling Down, which she and the group built matter-of-factly and aptly, with a bittersweet knowingness that was closer to Rachelle Garniez than the woman who wrote it, a deeply personal political artifact from the Civil Rights era whose relevance hasn’t dimmed.

The album release stand continues tonight, Feb 7 through 9 with sets at 7 and 10 PM; you can get in for $20.

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February 7, 2019 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Claudia Acuña’s Rich, Lyrical New Album Turns Out to be Worth a Decade-Long Wait

Claudia Acuña is revered in the New York jazz scene as one of the most unselfconsciously soulful and mutable singers around. She bridges the gap between North American jazz and South American balladry better than just about anyone, equally skilled in both English and Spanish. But she’s also a hell of a songwriter. Her new album Turning Pages – which hasn’t hit her music page yet – features seven originals along with a standard and another by her mentor, Abbey Lincoln. It’s Acuña’s first album as a bandleader in ten years, and it was worth the wait. She’s playing a four-night stand at Birdland to celebrate this Feb 6-9, with sets at 7 and 10; you can get in for as little as $20.

Lowlit by Pablo Vergara’s broodingly gleaming piano, Yayo Serka’s elegant drumming and Carlos Henderson’s terse bass, the album’s opening track, Aguita de Corazon is a masterpiece. Acuña’s voice is cool and nuanced yet plaintive, working the increasingly haunting twists of the lyrics with a subtle wallop. On harmonica, guest Gregoire Maret plays the solo of his life, a comet trail of angst to mirror the vocals.

Then Acuña flips the script with Hey, an insistent empowerment ballad that mashes up 70s clave soul with trippy, stainless-countertopped 90s acid jazz, guitarist Juancho Herrera adding an incisive, funky edge. Her luxuriantly bittersweet remake of Jimmy Van Heusen’s But Beautiful is spacious yet propulsive, driven by Serka’s syncopated, clickety-clack snare work. Henderson’s sinuous soloing and Herrera’s resonant jangle.

Acuña brings back the darkly pensive atmosphere in Tres Deseos (Three Wishes), awash in Serka’s waves of cymbals and malletwork and Vergara’s translucent, neoromantic phrasing. The moon imagery – a persistent trope here – in the next track, Futuro is more carefree, lit up by Herrera’s incisive flares over a pulsing quasi-reggae groove. His Arabic-tinged solo is just short of savage, and the album’s instrumental high point.

Lincoln’s Bird Alone has all kinds of neat, unexpected touches: Vergara’s coy chirps, Herrera’s spare, plaintive but powerfully present chords and a world-weary vocal that echoes both the writer and Sarah Vaughan. Silencio is anything but quiet, Herrera’s gritty flamenco-inflected lines driving the song to a harrowing peak with Acuña’s vocalese paired against Vergara’s ominously glittering rivulets.

Home, a duet with Herrera, is a gospel tune with some unexpected, sunny slide guitar. Those gospel echoes remain in thee album’s closing cut, Tu Sonrisa (Your Smile), its Mexican ranchera-inflected sway the closest thing to carefree here. It’s early in the year, but this is the best album of 2019 so far. 

January 30, 2019 Posted by | jazz, latin music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Gregorio Uribe Big Band Air Out Their Mighty, Slinky Cumbia Sounds at Two Shows This Coming Week

The Gregorio Uribe Big Band are one of those groups whose music is so fun that it transcends category. Is it cumbia? Big band jazz? Salsa? It’s a little of all that, and although it’s a sound that draws on a lot of traditions from south of the border, it’s something that probably only could have happened in New York. For more than three years, the mighty sixteen-piece ensemble has held a monthly residency at Zinc Bar. They’ve also got two enticing upcoming shows: one at Winter Jazzfest, on their regular home turf at twenty minutes before midnight on Friday, January 15 (you’ll need a festival pass for that), and also at about 10:30 PM on January 18 as part of this year’s South American Music Festival at Drom. That lineup, in particular, is pretty amazing, starting at 7:30 PM with magically eclectic singer (and member of Sara Serpa’s dreamy Mycale project) Sofía Rei, slashingly eclectic Pan-American guitarist Juancho Herrera and band, singer Sofía Tosello & innovative percussionist Franco Pinna’s hypnotic new folk-trance duo Chuño, then Uribe, then the psychedelic, surfy, vallenato-influenced art-rock groovemeisters Los Crema Paraiso and extrovert percussionist Cyro Baptista’s group at the top of the bill sometime in the wee hours. Advance tix are $20.

Frontman Uribe leads the group from behind his accordion, and sings – it’s hard to think of another large ensemble in New York fronted by an accordionist. Those textures add both playfulness and plaintiveness to Uribe’s vibrant, machinegunning charts. The group’s debut album, Cumbia Universal – streaming at Sondcloud – opens with Yo Vengo (Here I Come), with its mighty polyrhythmic pulse between trombones and trumpets, all sorts of neat counterpoint, and Uribe’s accordion teasing the brass to come back at him. They take it doublespeed at the end.  ¿Qué Vamos a Hacer Con Este Amor? (What Are We Going to Do with This Love?) is a funny salsa-jazz number spiced with dancing exchanges of horn voicings, a duet between Uribe and chanteuse Solange Pratt. She has lot of fun teasing him in his role as a chill pro, trying to resist her temptations.

El Avispao (The Cheater) isn’t about infidelity – it’s a bouncily sarcastic commentary on the corruption that plagues Latin America, with a sardonic tv-announcer cameo and faux fanfares from the brass. The intro to Goza Cada Dia (Enjoy Yourself) has one of the most gorgeous horn charts in years, expanding into individual voices as it goes along: there are echoes of Memphis soul, Afro-Cuban jazz and classic 70s roots reggae, but ultimately this is Uribe’s triumph. Ruben Blades duets with the bandleader on the album’s title track, a jubilant mashup of Caribbean and Pacific coastal cumbia, with a dixieland-tinged solo from Linus Wynsch’s clarinet and a more wryly gruff one from baritone saxophonist Carl Maraghi.

¿Por Qué Se Ira Mi Niño? portrays the anguish of losing a child – Uribe’s native Colombia has a higher infant mortality rate than this country, perhaps three times worse. Matt McDonald’s brooding trombone underscores the sadness of the vocals on the intro, then the band takes it toward salsa noir territory. The soca-flavored Caribe Contigo offers upbeat contrast, anchored by stormy brass and capped off with sailing clarinet. Welcome to La Capital, a bustling Bogota street scene, brings to mind the psychedelic lowrider soul of early 70s War, Ignacio Hernandez’ guitar sparkling amid the endless handoffs among the horns.

The cumbia cover of the Beatles’ Come Together is just plain hilarious – and the way the original vocal line gets shifted to the brass isn’t even the funniest part. The album winds up with the unexpectedly bristling, hi-de-ho noir cumbia jazz of  Ya Comenzó La Fiesta (The Party Starts Here). Crank this in your earphones as you try to multitask, but expect people to be looking at you because you won’t be able to sit still.

January 10, 2016 Posted by | jazz, latin music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Lila Downs y la Misteriosa En Paris – Live a FIP

If you get one Lila Downs album, this is it. This isn’t safe, emasculated faux-exotica for curious yuppies: it’s a fiesta, and not always a happy one. Downs’ commitment to and passionate advocacy for a whole slew of Mexican folk styles – and the immigrants whose ancestors created them – has made her impossible to pigeonhole, with a defiantly individualistic streak. Recorded live on French radio last year, Downs sings with raw brass, grit and soul, backed by a terrific band with edge, bite and some stunningly imaginative arrangements – the most prominent instrument here is Celso Duarte’s concert harp. The sprawling group also includes Downs’ husband and longtime musical director Paul Cohen on tenor sax and clarinet, fiery forro specialist Rob Curto on accordion, the incisive Juancho Herrera (also of Claudia Acuña’s band) on guitars, Carlos Henderson on bass, Dana Leong on trombone, Yayo Serka on drums and Samuel Torres on percussion. And while there are plenty of folklorico numbers – the swaying accordion-driven song that opens the concert; a plaintive, mournful update of a Zapotec song, and a stunningly poignant, beautifully sung version of the traditional ballad La Llorona, the strongest songs here are the originals.

The stinging, Gil Scott-Heron inflected blues shuffle Minimum Wage – sung in English – makes a vivid tribute to the illegal immigrants that American businesses are only too happy to hire at a cut rate. The metaphorically loaded singalong anthem Justicia goes looking for justice everywhere, but there are places where it simply cannot be found:

[translated from the original Spanish]

I don’t see you in the High Command
I can’t find you in offices
Or in men in uniform
Or the fence at the border

And the understatedly scathing, ghostly, reggae-flavored anti-NAFTA broadside La Linea (The Line) imagines a medicine woman treating a child whose “skin has grown feathers” courtesy of untreated industrial waste from American border sweatshops. But once Downs has you in touch with reality, she gets the party started. There’s a festive, minor-key cumbia salute to the joy of getting stoned and eating good mole, a largely improvised party number from Veracruz with the harp and percussion rattling and plinking at full volume, and a long jam on Hava Nagila during the band intros before the encores. And the version of La Cucaracha here leaves no doubt as to what that song’s about, right down to a briefly woozy dub-flavored interlude. It’s out now on World Village Music.

May 30, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment