Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Gregg August’s Shattering, Epic New Album Confronts Racist Evil

Bassist Gregg August has somehow found the time to put out one of the most powerful, relevant albums in any style of music over the last several months. Dialogues on Race – streaming at Bandcamp – is a haunting, majestic, anguished large-ensemble suite that reflects on how Americans have been divided and conquered in the name of an archaic concept invented about five hundred years ago by psychotic slave traders as a justification for genocide.

Historically speaking, racism is a relatively recent construct. In the middle ages, if you were going around kidnapping and murdering people, you probably would have been hanged or beheaded. So the slavers came up with the novel proposition that lighter-skinned people are somehow superior to people of color.

There was money to be made in that murderous trade, and the fiction of civilized Europeans versus African savages was well marketed. They got enough Europeans to buy it, to the point that it lasted another three hundred fifty-plus years. Today we are seeing how the lockdowners are using that same dynamic, desperately trying to create an army of clueless maskers to demonize and attack the unmasked.

In his liner notes, August is quick to acknowledge the irony of being a white man tackling a subject that’s usually treated as “the Jew under the kitchen floor,’” that nobody talks about, as one friend of this blog recently put it. And as a jazz musician, August is keenly aware of issues of cultural appropriation. But ultimately, we need to lift every voice and sing truth to power as August does with this majestic, dynamically rich theme and variations for jazz nonet, string quartet and narrator.

August’s central theme is the 1955 murder of Emmitt Till. Interspersed among and often woven into the suite’s diverse movements are several smartly chosen poems exploring racism’s many ugly legacies, along with narrator Wayne Smith reading Till’s mother chillingly straightforward account of the aftermath of the murder.

The album’s first number, Sherbet introduces a broodingly bluesy central motive, up to a Mingus-esque bustle. Letter to America is a strolling, determindedly brassy, marching tune set to a tumbling, implied clave. The horns build a circling, harried intensity, down to pianist Luis Perdomo’s skeletal, ominous incisions. “We served you as a mirror, a lamp, a toy,” Smith intones. It’s a great poem. “Our bodies are your insides…we reflect your future.” Ken Thomson follows with a soulful bass clarinet solo, setting up trombonist Rafi Malkiel scatting through his horn.

Lacy sings Your Only Child, its blustery horn cadences matching the lyrics, Mamie Till asking “How could he have died so undignified? ”The epic I Rise follows an awakening trajectory with conversational, rhythmless horns, a Braxton-esque, massed swell and hauntingly pulsing waves that look straight back to Mingus. John  Bailey’s trumpet is the focal point, whether in a brooding Miles vein or jubilantly swinging; Thomson’s reedy bass clarinet delivers a moment of triumph.

Malkiel’s trombone and JD Allen’s tenor sax open Sky, a real throwback to the withering modal power that characterized August’s tenure in Allen’s trio. The majesty but also the ache as the group soar but also struggle against an overhanging presence is visceral. Allen’s saturnine spirals, shadowed by Perdomo, might be the most starkly insightful notes anybody’s played this year. Malkiel’s spacious solo afterward, over Perdomo’s icy accents, is no less impactful.

August bows broodingly as he revisits Your Only Child’s theme. I Sang in the Sun, a somber, spacious setting of a Carolyn Kizer poem, is an sobering reflection on white wilingness to embrace the bravery of being out of range when it comes to the murder of black people. The sarcasm of Perdomo’s loungey, easygoing solo is crushing.

The third reprise of Your Only Child, sung by Shelley Washington, opens with Middle Eastern gravitas from the string quartet, Allen’s sagacious spare lines over their swells. The juxtaposition between the otherworldly strings and the low horns could be the album’s most darkly gorgeous interlude; August follows with solo bass that echoes the Bach cello suites.

Sweet Words on Race is a jaunty, tightly undulating latin jazz number in the same vein that August has mined so often throughout his previous work. Thomson and saxophonist John Ellis spar animatedly to introduce The Bird Leaps, an altered, playfully voiced take on 30s Basie swing. August’s Blues Finale offers a glimpse of hope with its determined New Orleans shuffle groove and Frank Lacy’s gruff vocalese. The number of levels this music exists on is stunning: this could easily be the best jazz album of 2020.

And while we’re on the topic of the Emmitt Till murder, the most evil person in the whole group responsible wasn’t one of the men who lynched him. It was Carolyn Bryant, the woman who lied to her husband – one of the actual murderers – that Till had whistled at her, setting off the deadly mob..

August 17, 2020 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Pianist Carolina Calvache Takes Her Lyrical, Individualistic Style to New Depths

It’s always validating to see an artist follow his or her muse and take their art to the next level. Pianist Carolina Calvache‘s 2014 debut album Sotareño was an ambitious mix of classically-inspired lyricism, postbop jazz and rhythms from her native Colombia. But Calvache is also a songwriter. On her new album Vida Profunda – streaming at Bandcamp -, she backs a murderer’s row of vocal talent in a collection of originals plus new settings of poems from across the ages. Calvache’s style is distinctly her own: 19th century art-song, classical music, jazz and diverse sounds from south of the border all figure in. Most of the lyrics on the album are in Spanish.

Marta Gomez sings the album’s title track, an anthemic neoromantic art-song awash in lush strings, with an understated intensity. Based on a poem by Porfirio Barba Jacob, it’s an uneasy coming to terms with extremes, emotional or otherwise. As Calvache sees it, an unfelt life is not worth living.

Sofia Ribeiro takes over the mic for El Pájaro Yo (The Bird Is Me), a darkly lilting setting of the famous Pablo Neruda poem. Hadar Noiberg’s flute soaring as fearlessly as the lyric. Ruben Blades delivers Te Conocí de Nuevo (I Met You Again), a reunited-for-good ballad, with hope and tenderness over Calvache’s bright, emphatic melody.

Claudia Acuña gives an aching, imploring angst to Sin un Despido (unpoetic translation: We Never Got to Say Goodbye), a glistening, symphonic requiem for the 2015 LaMia Flight 2933 crash whose victims included the Brazilian soccer team Chapecoens. Sara Serpa provides her signature, crystalline vocalese gravitas to Hope, a optimistically clustering number propelled by Jonathan Blake’s drums, Samuel Torres’ djembe and Peter Slavov’s bass, Calvache introducing it with a reference to Lift Every Voice and Sing.

Aubrey Johnson brings a bracing, unsettled energy to Childhood Retreat, a poignant setting of a Robert Duncan poem capped off by Michael Rodriguez’s soaring trumpet. Haydee Milanes offers warm and reflection in the Horace Silver-inspired Stella, a tribute to Calvache’s mom, with the composer on twinkling Rhodes and then incisive acoustic piano as harmonica player Gregoire Maret spirals overhead.

Serpa takes over on vocals again for the album’s most stunning song, The Trail, based on the Gabriel Garcia Marquez short story The Trail of Your Blood in the Snow. Calvache ripples and cascades over sweeping string orchestration: at a time when the lockdowners are insisting on increasingly sinister levels of surveillance, this song couldn’t be more timely.

Lara Bello lends a warmly reflective tone to No Te Vi Crecer (I Didn’t See You Grow Up) over Calvache’s glistening lines: as lullabies go, this is a particularly enegetic one. The album’s only dud is a pop song that smacks of label mismanagement and doesn’t take advantage of Calvache’s many talents. This is a quiet triumph of outside-the-box playing from a rotating cast that also includes drummer Keita Ogawa; bassists Petros Klampanis and Ricky Rodriguez; violinists Tomoko Omura, Leonor Falcon, Ben Russell, Annaliesa Place and Adda Kridler; violists Allysin Clare and Jocelin Pan; cellists Brian Sanders and Diego Garcia; oboist Katie Scheele; trombonist Achilles Liarmakopoulous and bass clarinetist Paul Won Jin Cho.

July 23, 2020 Posted by | classical music, jazz, latin music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Fiercely Relevant, Epic Grandeur From Pianist Arturo O’Farrill’s Mighty Big Band

Pianist Arturo O’Farrill has made a career out of writing witheringly insightful, relevant, politically fearlesss jazz. His brilliantly symphonic 2014 album The Offense of the Drum, with his Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra addressed issues spanning from the blight of gentrification, to the arrest quotas the New York City police were using at the time to target innocent people of color, to the the slavers in the British colonies who outlawed music in an attempt to keep kidnapped Africans in submission. At a moment where band performances are illegal in New York, there’s never been a more appropriate time for a new record from this mighty crew. Their latest one, Four Questions – streaming at Spotify – Is O’Farrill’s most musically ambitious and classically-oriented album in a career full of taking chances.

The centerpiece is the title suite, featuring firebrand theorist, author and hip-hop artist Cornel West. The stairstepping brass intro is a lot closer to John Zorn than, say, Machito; the bluster and slink afterward alludes to the Middle East, among many shifting idioms, with triumphant call-and-response riffage throughout the ensemble. This isn’t just a backing track for West’s characteristically polymath broadside, which draws from W.E.B. DuBois’ thoughts on building community to combat repression from all sides. In sixteen minutes plus, West makes the connection between DuBois’ vision of a society based on compassion and Jane Austen’s concept of “constancy,” rails against Wall Street scammers who go unpunished and sends fervent shouts out to a long legacy of American artists of color whose work and philosophy in the face of murderous tyranny have never been more relevant than they are now. “Folks can’t ride your back unless it’s bent,” he reminds. Along the way, O’Farrill brings the music down to a streetcorner descarga, throws in a little jaunty ragtime, a rustic oldtime gospel trumpet interlude, and references from James P. Johnson to Geri Allen.

The album’s second suite is A Still, Small Voice, O’Farrill’s reflection on the 2008 financial collapse engineered by the Bush regime and Goldman Sachs to take the profits private and the losses public (and potentially cripple the incoming Obama administration). A forlorn trumpet solo opens the first movement, Elijah – 1 Kings 19:13. A choir of disembodied voices conducted by Jana Ballard coalesces, punctuated by orchestral swells, portentous percussion and a cantering qawaali-flavored rhythm.

Uneasy close harmonies from the choir fuel the fleeting second movement, Amidst the Fire and Whirlwind. The third, aptly titled Cacophonous has a rising, terrorized counterpoint anchored by the bandleader’s eerie boogie-woogie lefthand, interrupted by a suspiciously blithe soprano sax solo. The orchestra and choir work ethereal chromatic descents over a tense pulse in the concluding title movement, eventually ceding to a somberly catchy sway and a calm, gospel-infused outro. O’Farrill always likes to leave a window for hope to get in.

Not everything here is this heavy. The opening track, Baby Jack, is essentially a soprano sax concerto. It’s a playful, telling portrait of a very mercurial infant, complete with peevish trombones, moments of wonderous calm contrasting with unexpected, lush sagacity: this is one precocious child!

Jazz Twins has a sweeping, Darcy James Argue-ish bittersweetness and waves of counterpoint. O’Farrill takes a rippling solo, followed by gritty, clustering tenor sax and soaring trumpet over more of that Punjabi-inflected rhythm. And Clump, Unclump, a circling study in divergence, convergence and triumph over an evil system, manages to be both the album’s most avant garde and yet most traditionally postbop number.

June 7, 2020 Posted by | avant garde music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Pianist Yoko Miwa Brings Her Purist Retro Sounds to Birdland

Artists who come from outside an idiom often have some catching up to do. In the process, some of them surpass others who grew up in that style. Yoko Miwa embodies a gritty, purist, 1960s take on jazz: the Japanese-born pianist’s music is a lot more about entertainment and tunes than insider snarkiness – or whatever it is that Snarky Puppy do. Her new trio album Keep Talkin’ is streaming at her music page. She’s playing Birdland on Jan 30 at 7 PM; you can get in for $20.

The album is a mix of originals and inventive covers, with a remarkable freshness and road-tested camaraderie: these expansive tracks really nail what she sounds like live. Miwa opens with the title cut, a vampy latin soul groove where she weaves in some uneasy Monkish harmonies toward the end. She’s a hard hitter, as she reaffirms in a dynamic, leaping take of In Walked Bud, focusing on Monk’s wary passing tones. Bassist Will Slater shifts between dancing melody and walking the changes hard as drummer Scott Goulding swings it toward New Orleans and then back.

Secret Rendezvous, a straightforward, syncopated clave tune is next, Goulding subtly pushing the beat with his tropical rimshots and a purposeful drum solo out. The Bill Evans-influenced, lyrical Sunset Lane manages to be ripplingly kinetic and bittersweet all at once. Miwa reinvents Charles Mingus’ Boogie Stop Shuffle as a stripped-down but no less turbulently bluesy showstopper.

She makes a diptych out of the Beatles’ Golden Slumbers and You Never Give Me Your Money, sticking close to the originals while adding an unexpectedly starry solo, picking up with a rather crushing attack on the second tune. The trio work a spring-loaded pulse in the understatedly brooding, modally-charged, intensely crescendoing Tone Portrait: it’s the album’s darkest track.

Miwa draws on singer Maria Rita’s waltzing version of the Brazilian ballad Casa Pre-Fabricada for a striking, emotionally direct sparkle. The pianist reinvents Joni Mitchell’s Conversation as a dynamically bristling, absolutely exhilarating gospel anthem that brings to mind Fairport Convention as much as, say, Mulgrew Miller. It’s one of the finest things Miwa has ever recorded: if only she could have given it a proper ending instead of a fade out!

If You’re Blue is a cleverly bluesy, straight-up swinging paraphrase of Puttin’ on the Ritz with bracing Monk references. Miwa closes the album with the epic, wistful ballad Sunshine Follows the Rain, guest bassist Brad Barrett adding moody washes and subtly sinuous melody, Miwa drifting into stern gospel territory once again.

January 25, 2020 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Transcendence and Trials at Winter Jazzfest 2020

One of the high points of Winter Jazzfest 2020 was a rock song.

Don’t read that the wrong way. Firing off clanging, reverb-fanged minor chords from her white Fender Jaguar, Becca Stevens sang her steadily crescendoing anthem I Will Avenge You with just enough distance to make the inevitable all the more grim. Connections to a famous hippie songwriter and steampunk Broadway show aside, it was validating to see her pack the Poisson Rouge to open last night’s Manhattan marathon of shows.

She’s lost none of the livewire intensity she had in the days when she used to front a surrealistically entertaining cover band, the Bjorkestra, ten-odd years ago. Her own material is just as artsy and outside-the-box: it’s what would have been called art-rock back in the 70s, but with a 90s trip-hop influence (Portishead at their most orchestral) instead of, say, Genesis. Drummer Jordan Perlson and bassist Chris Tordini gave a snap to the songs’ tricky metrics, lead guitarist Jan Esbra adding terse colors, keyboardist Michelle Willis bubbling and rippling and soaring with her vocal harmonies. The songs ranged from an uneasily dancing setting of a Shakespeare text from Romeo and Juliet, to a dizzyingly circling ukulele tune, to Tillery, the subtly soukous-inflected anthem that Stevens typically opens with. “Without love there is nothing,” was the singalong chorus. True enough: that’s why we do this stuff.

A few blocks east at the Zurcher Gallery, singer Sara Serpa raised the bar impossibly high for the rest of the night, or so it seemed at the moment. With barely a pause between songs, she led a tightly focused lustrous quartet – longtime partner and saturnine influence Andre Matos on guitar, Dov Manski on piano and analog synth, and Jesse Simpson on drums – through a glistening, sometimes pointillistic, sometimes shatteringly plaintive set of songs without words.

Serpa didn’t sing any actual lyrics until the unexpectedly playful final song, relying instead on her signature vocalese. While she’s best known as a purveyor of misty, airy, frequently noir sonics, she’s developed stunning new power, especially on the low end – although she used that very judiciously. The most haunting song of the night came across as a mashup of Chano Dominguez and Procol Harum at their most quietly brooding, with a ghostly avenger out front. Matos’ steady, purposeful, meticulously nuanced chords and fills anchored Manski’s often otherworldly textures and eerie belltones as Simpson maintained a steady, suspenseful flutter with his bundles.

Over at Zinc Bar, trumpeter Samantha Boshnack led a New York version of her Seismic Belt septet, playing shapeshiftingly emphatic, anthemic, eco-disaster themed material from her fantastic 2019 album of the same name. The music seemed to still be coalescing, but that observation might be colored by the situation where the bar wasn’t letting people stand in the inner room close to the band, as they had in the past, and what was being piped into the front area through a couple of tinny speakers wasn’t enough to compete with a chatty crowd. The bandleader’s soulful, cantabile tone rose and fell gracefully and mingled with the sometimes stark, occasionally lush textures of violinist Sarah Bernstein, violist Jessica Pavone, bassist Lisa Hoppe, expansively dynamic baritone saxophonist Chris Credit, pianist Kai Ono and drummer Jacob Shandling. Boshnack’s voice is full of color and sparkle, just like her horn: she should sing more. Chet Baker may have left us, but Boshnack would be a welcome addition to the trumpeter/singer demimonde.

That there would be such a packed house in the basement of a snooty new Lafayette Street tourist bar, gathered to see the debut of pedal steel paradigm-shifter Susan Alcorn‘s new quintet, speaks to the exponential increase in interest in improvisation at the highest level. That the band had such potent material to work with didn’t hurt. Alcorn’s tunesmithing can be as devastatingly sad as her stage presence and banter is devastatingly funny.

Drummer Ryan Sawyer – most recently witnessed swinging the hell out of a set by Rev. Vince Anderson a couple of weeks ago – sank his sticks into a diving bell of a press roll that Alcorn pulled shivering to the surface in a trail of sparks. Violinist Mark Feldman’s searingly precise downward cadenza out of a long, matter-of-factly circling Michael Formanek bass crescendo was just as much of a thrill. Guitarist Mary Halvorson echoed the bandleader’s sudden swells and sharply disappearing vistas with her volume pedal.

There was a lot of sublime new material in the set. They began with a poignant, 19th century gospel-infused minor-key number that disintegrated into a surreal reflecting pool before returning, austere and darkly ambered. An even more angst-fueled, lingering diptych began as a refection on a battle with food poisoning, Alcorn deadpanned: from the sound of that, it could have killed her. Later portraits of New Mexico mountain terrain and a Utah “circular ruin” gave the band plenty of room to expand on similarly stark themes. The coyly galloping romp out at the end of the catchy, concluding pastoral jazz number offered irresistibly amusing relief.

Winter Jazzfest has expanded to the point where it seems it’s now a lot easier to get in to see pretty much whoever you want to see – at least this year, from this point of view. Even so, there’s always triage. Matthew Shipp at the Nuyorican, what a serendipitous match…but the Nuyorican is a good fifteen-minute shlep from the Bleecker Street strip, just on the cusp of where a taxi driver would think you’re really lame for not hoofing it over to Alphabet City.

Cuban-born pianist Harold Lopez-Nussa and his irrepressible quartet at Subculture were much closer. There’s always been a fine line between salsa and jazz and for this show, this crew – with Mayquel Gonzalez on trumpet, Gaston Joya on five-string bass and the bandleader’s brother Ruy on drums – sided with bringing the first kind of party. In a spirited duet, it turned out that the bandleader’s bro is a more than competent and equally extrovert pianist, when he wasn’t riffing expertly on his snare like a timbalero. The group shifted from long, vampy, percussive cascades to classically-flavored interludes, including a catchy Leo Brouwer ballad that Lopez-Nussa used as a rollercoaster to engage the crowd. What a beautiful, sonically pristine venue, and what a shame that, beyond a weekly Sunday morning classical concert series, the space isn’t used for music anymore. They probably couldn’t put the Poisson Rouge out of business – who would want that bar’s cheesy Jersey cover bands, anyway – but they could steal all their classical and jazz acts.

January 12, 2020 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Jason Yeager Reinvents Pan-American Classics as Protest Jazz on His Searingly Relevant New Album

Pianist Jason Yeager couldn’t have timed the release of his latest album New Songs of Resistance – streaming at Bandcamp – any better. With Bolivian President Evo Morales driven from office by a right-wing coup and Nicaragua’s Sandinistas under increasing fire from corporate-aligned fascists, Yeager’s mix of original protest jazz and classic nuevas canciones from 1970s Latin America are more relevant than ever. He’s playing the album release show on Dec 19 at 8:30 PM at the Cell Theatre; cover is $15.

The album’s most stunning track is Yeager’s grimly modal, savagely kinetic setting of Somos Cinco Mil, the final poem written by iconic songwriter Victor Jara in the Santiago stadium in the hours before he and thousands of other members of the Chilean intelligentsia were murdered by Augusto Pinochet’s death squad following the 1973 CIA-sponsored coup. Vocalist Erini sings this defiant but eerily prophetic anthem with a plaintive calm against cellist Naseem Alatrash’s slashing, Egyptian-tinged accents and the bandleader’s crushing chords.

The group open the album with an elegantly pulsing take of Violeta Parra’s Gracias a la Vida, Erini’s expressive delivery over Matthew Stubbs’ clarinet and bass clarinet, Cosimo Boni’s trumpet, Milena Casado’s flugelhorn, Yeager’s spare piano and the understated rhythm section of bassist Fernando Huergo and drummer Mark Walker.

Farayi Malek delivers Yeager’s cynical broadside The Facts over a sardonically ominous pseudo-march – a frequent and potently effective trope here – bringing to mind the fiery intensity of Todd Marcus‘ similarly political work, especially when the bass clarinet kicks in. Yeager introduces another Jara song, Aqui Me Quedo with a pensively unsettled solo intro, Erini’s vocals rising defiantly over  sweeping orchestration.

Mother Earth, a Yeager original, has strong Monk echoes along with more suspiciously straightforward strutting and,a long, insistent trumpet crescendo. Singer Farayu Malek’s matter-of-fact recitation of Yeager’s scathing, spot-on lyrics to In Search of Truth addresses a host of problems – eco-apocalypse, the corporate-driven race toward slavery and dehumanization – over an increasingly agitated backdrop. Then Yeager opens Leon Geico’s Cinco Siglos Igual with a brooding, Rachmaninovian noir interlude, Erini’s expressive, ripely wounded vocals bringing to mind Camila Meza, Casado picking up the pace against the band’s lustre.

The rest of the record includes three originals and a Brazilian song. Protest, a menacing, stabbing little march, leads into the album’s creepiest, most carnivalesque number, Reckoning: with a tune and a Malek vocal this coldly dismissive, who says revenge songs need lyrics? Yeager’s final instrumental interlude follows, macabre and suspenseful. The album ends on an upbeat note with a loose-limbed take of Brazilian songwriter Chico Buarque’s Apesar de Voce, sung with dusky resolve by Mirella Costa. Yeager’s relentless, usually understated intensity, starkly evocative compositions and imaginative reworking of a smartly assembled mix of classic songs make this one of the best albums of 2019 in any style of music.

December 14, 2019 Posted by | jazz, latin music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

High Voltage Latin Jazz with Dayramir Gonzalez & Cuba enTRANCe at Lincoln Center

It would probably be overhype to call pianist Dayramir Gonzalez the missing link between Eddie Palmieri and McCoy Tyner. But at his thundering, intense show last week Lincoln Center, Gonzalez and his booming ensemble Cuba enTRANCe strongly brought to mind both of those two icons. With a crushing lefthand attack, stampeding the entire length of the keys, Gonzalez’s intensity never relented. Nobody knows better than he does that the piano is a percussion instrument.

If that wasn’t enough, Gonzalez made sure he had plenty more torrential beats on hand, with both drums and congas in the band: each player got plenty of time in the spotlight and used it explosively. Contrastingly, Gonzalez’s bassist – playing a five-string model with an extra B on the low end – held the center, tersely and calmly, with his judicious, resonant slides and the occasional chord to drive a big crash home.

The quartet opened with a shapeshifting, majestic jazz waltz, introducing the calm/frenetic bass/piano dynamic that would last the duration of the night. The second number, Moving Foward, was a bristling, modally-charged epic, the thunder punctuated by Gonzalez’s glistening cascades and a couple of more moody, suspenseful interludes where the rhythm dropped back.

He explained that as a kid, he’d followed his mom’s advice that “Una sonrisa abre puertas,” building on that idea with Smiling, a more pointillistic, leaping number. He brought it down afterward with a solo ballad from his debut album, Grand Concourse, which was party salsa jazz and part late Beatles. The rest of the set was just as dynamic: loopy, catchy riffage over polyrhythms; more glistening, darkly vamping tableaux that were part salsa and part Chopin; sad boleroish balladry and pouncing, carnaval-esque party themes. Gonzalez spoke eloquently to the similarities between the refugee crisis in Europe and the one further south on this continent; he even sang a little. The crowd clapped along, hitting a salsa groove without any prompting. Right now, Gonzalez seems to be better known in Europe than he is here, and that’s a crime. His next gig is on Dec 4 at 8 PM at Vibrato Grill Jazz, 2930 N Beverly Glen Cir in Los Angeles; cover is $30.

The series of free concerts at the Lincoln Center atrium space on Broadway just north of 62nd St. continues tonight, Dec 2, with an earlier, 7 PM show featuring Strings & Skins, who combine Colombian and Haitian dance grooves. There are also many other performances in the neighborhood until 9; if you can handle the cold, follow the sound.

December 2, 2019 Posted by | concert, jazz, latin music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

¿Que Vola? Put a New Spin on an Ancient Party Tradition at Lincoln Center

Saturday night, Lincoln Center was hopping with Afro-Latin sounds. Out back in the park, Los Hacheros said the hell with the threat of rain and gave the dancers a fiery launching pad for some serious moves. A couple of blocks to the south, winding up their debut US tour at Dizzy’s Club, ¿Que Vola? offered another direction for those ancient beats.

They’re a big, brassy newschool jazz group turbocharged by the whirlwind rhythms of three percussionists from Cuban ensemble the Osain del Monte Orchestra. One suspects that the trio are equally skilled at a brain-warping number of beats; at this show, their roles seemed clearly defined. Adonis Panter Calderon, seated in the middle, was the Secretary of Entertainment with his machinegunning flurries and live-wire crescendos, getting up at the end of the set to do a ritual dance as a shout-out to ancient spirits from the African motherland. To his left, Ramon Tamayo Martinez came across as the salsa maestro; to his right, Barbaro Crespo Richard served as a sort of bass player, holding down the center when things got crazy. And they did.

That didn’t seem to be the case as the group opened with massed, minimalist horns over a subtly shapeshifting intertwine of grooves. Until the individual voices loosened and solos began to appear, the sound was closer to indie classical than jazz. The rest of the night ranged between loosely contiguous Afrobeat and what sounded like boisterous old Yoruba shout-and-response chants transcribed for jazz instrumentation.

The biggest hits with the crowd were the percussion interludes. The three beatmasters played mostly on congas, shifting to the double-barreled bata for extra boom during one lengthy number. Martinez also had a cajon which he used sparingly. Meanwhile, bassist Thibaud Soulas played with the punch and stamina of a percussionist, running circular phrases over and over and taking the occasional stairstepping climb. Drummer Elie Duris was also having a great time using his rims and hardware for extra click and crash amid the booming torrent.

Alto saxophonist Benjamin Dousteyssier – one of several members associated with the French Orchestre National de Jazz – dazzled the crowd with his silvery, slithery glissandos and arpeggios. Tenor player Hugues Mayot and trumpeter Aymeric Avice shifted between incisive postbop and sometimes airy, sometimes turbulent Afrobeat. Behind them, electric pianist Bruno Rude’s Rhodes bubbled and rippled like a vibraphonist. With so many tightly interwoven rhythms bursting out from every corner of the band, it only made sense that he’d want to join the party.

July 3, 2019 Posted by | jazz, latin music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Fresh New Take on Ancient Afro-Cuban Grooves

In Cuban slang, “¿Que Vola?” means “What’s up?” ¿Que Vola? are also a transnational collaboration between three members of legendary Afro-Cuban ensemble the Osain del Monte Orchestra, and several current and former members of French big band the Orchestre National de Jazz. Their debut album is just out and streaming at Spotify. They also have a popular youtube series which follows various band members as they roam around Havana.

In the first video, Ramon Tamayo Martinez performs an ancient, supernatural African drum ritual. In the second, bassist Thibaud Soulas throws a party in memory the beloved mentor who introduced him to Afro-Cuban music. Next up, percussionist Adonis Panter Calderon has to deal with the drama of trying to reschedule a concert cancelled by the Cuban government – all because the president of the country’s ally, Vietnam, has died. After that, Calderon and trombonist Fidel Fourneyron talk music and history in a gritty Havana barrio. The series finale features yet another memorial bash, underscoring how the Afro-Cuban tradition removes barriers between performers and audience. If you’re part of the party, you’re probably playing something.

The album is part rustic, animated streetcorner descarga and part terse, emphatic European jazz. Several of the tracks sound like ancient chants with the vocals switched out for simple horn lines. It opens with a mightily crescendoing salute to the god Chango, minimalist brass over a shapeshifting thicket of percussion: imagine an epic Amir ElSaffar overture percolating with Cuban beats. The second track, Nganga begins with jaunty call and response between Founeyron’s trombone and the rest of the horns: saxophonists Hugues Mayot and Benjamin Dousteyssier and trumpeter Aymeric Avice. Then Bruno Rude’s Rhodes piano takes over beneath a bubbly sax solo as the music gets crazier.

Calle Luz is a sparkling Afrobeat jam, drummer Elie Duris laying down a tricky beat as the horns punch in and out. The next track, titled ¿Que Vola?, builds from a neat implied clave to a starry Rhodes solo, then the horns burst in and accelerate toward warpspeed.

Iyeta comes across as variations on another lively chant with vocals switched out for horns. Fruta Bomba is a carnivalesque number with trickily polyrhythmic allusions to salsa annd Afrobeat. The sprawling Resistir closes the album, a mashup of clave syncopation, Afrobeat and Return to Forever with some deliciously unanticipated noirish swells. They’re playing the atrium space at Lincoln Center on Broadway just north of 62nd St. for free at 7:30 PM on June 27; then they’ll be at Dizzy’s Club on the 29th at 11:30 for $20.

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June 23, 2019 Posted by | jazz, latin music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Mighty, Majestically Orchestrated, Ambitious Album and a Vanguard Stand This Week From Alto Saxophone Titan MIguel Zenon

You might not expect Miguel Zenon to open his latest album with a cantabile pastorale, but that’s exactly what he’s done. The alto saxophonist has made some amazing records over the years – his smoldering Oye! Live in Puerto Rico from 2013 is a favorite – but his most recent one is his most ambitious yet. You could say that Yo Soy la Tradicion is his Sketches of Spain, a collaboration with the magical, microtonally-inclined Spektral Quartet streaming at their music page.

Jazz sax and strings have a history that dates back to Charlie Parker; this is a lot closer to Astor Piazzolla at his most adventurous, or Bartok, than orchestrated swing. Zenon has yet another weeklong stand at the Vanguard starting tomorrow, March 12 with his quartet and continuing through the 17th, with sets at 8 and 10:30.

The Spektral Quartet – violinists Clara Lyon and Maeve Feinberg, violist Doyle Armbrust and cellist Russell Rolen – open the album with the rather stark, almost severely precise intro to Rosario, inspired by the Catholic rosary tradition; then Zenon flips the script and builds a bubbly dance overhead that brings to mind the similarly paradigm-shifting work of Argentine bandoneonist JP Jofre. It’s catchy, almost to the point of sentimentality.

Cadenas (Chains) draws on European 20th century minimalism as well as Puerto Rican line dances, the strings’ hypnotic, insistent acerbity balancing Zenon’s folksy, airy delivery. Then the sax and quartet switch roles, a neat touch.

Yumac may have roots in rural Puerto Rican folk music – the ttile is the town of Camuy, home to popular 50s songwriter German Rosario, spelled backwards – but the music comes across as a more harmonically complex take on Ernesto Lecuona’s anthemic mashup of Afro-Cuban themes and western classical orchestration.

Milagrosa is more balmy, an unexpectedly successful mashup of spaciously sequenced postbop sax and alternately rhythmic and lush string passages, with a crescendo midway through that’s as majestic as anything Zenon has ever written.

The album’s most gorgeous track is Viejo, shifting from troubled, massed Julia Wolfe-like insistence, to an unabashedly lyrical ballad with an elegaic cello solo followed by Zenon’s broodingly wafting melody. Zenon’s tone is more biting than Paul Desmond’s, but the lyricism here is very similar.

If Bartok had a thing for Spain instead of Tunisia, he might have written Cadenza: there are also echoes of wistul, uneasy Debussy. Again, Zenon brightens the ambience, this time with flamenco allusions. Imagine Ligeti trying to reduce a flamenco tune to simplest terms: that’s the outro.

The album’s most epic track is Promesa, a diptych of sorts that refers to the Catholic festival of the Three Kings. A pensive cello solo takes centerstage over a lush backdrop that recedes to a steady, minimalist pulse, Zenon building the longest solo here from gentle pastoral colors to lively, blues-tinged spirals. Then the atmosphere shifts to artfully pulsing variations on a lively alguinaldo jibaro country dance theme.

Piazzolla, or for that matter, Lecuona would have been proud to have written the anthemic final number, based on a variant of that style from the town of Villalba. Obviously, Zenon’s Vanguard stand this week isn’t likely to showcase a lot of this material; on the other hand, with a guy who’s been known to reinvent classic Sylvia Rexach boleros, you never know.

March 11, 2019 Posted by | classical music, jazz, latin music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment