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.

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

Dark Latin Jazz Intensity from Gregg August

Gregg August validates the theory that a good bass player always has a gig – to the extreme. He’s as comfortable servimg as first chair bass of the Brooklyn Philharmonic, or with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, as he is with the JD Allen Trio and Quartet and with his own bands. Versatile as August is, his passion is latin jazz. In his world, that extends to Spanish music, a genre he knows a little something about, having first honed his symphonic chops with orchestas in Spain. His playing is terse, direct and hard-hitting: much as he has chops to rival anyone’s, he chooses pulse and melody over any kind of gratuitous display. Because of that, it’s refreshing to hear his instrument as prominent in the mix as it is here: he invariably leaves you wishing for more. His compositions are nimble, energetic, and relevant: August does not shy away from darkness or from confronting issues of justice and social inequality. His new album Four by Six is not lighthearted, but it is often exhilarating. Here most of the tracks alternate between his quartet with Sam Newsome on soprano sax, Luis Perdomo on piano and E.J. Strickland on drums, and with his sextet with Rudy Royston on drums plus Perdomo, Yosvany Terry on alto sax, John Bailey on trumpet and Allen on tenor.

The album opens with Affirmation, an acerbic, somewhat acidic strut for the quartet. Newsome throws some elbows and they swing it back and forth. Another quartet tune, For Calle Picota is catchy as hell – it has the same kind of majesty and gravitas and economy of notes that Allen is known for, Strickland and Perdomo working toward a salsa swing as Newsome somersaults amiably.

For Max, the first of the sextet numbers, begins with a lush, flamenco-esque chart straight out of the Gil Evans book circa 1959 that Perdomo and then Allen follow in the same vein. The slowly slinking bass solo as the horns rise majestically over August’s roaring chordal pedalpoint is nothing short of transcendent. By contrast, Bandolim shifts quickly from a lively, tricky ensemble tune to free and spacious, with some marvelously judicious work from the whole band over whispery, nebulous rhythm bookended by sudden bursts of swing.

Newsome stars on the pensive salsa swing of Strange Street, taking his time achieving altitude, handing off to Perdomo, who goes for loungey and then lets August take it deep, deep into the shadows: his nonchalant chromatics are absolutely chilling. A Ballad for MV follows: the two pieces are essentially a diptych, this one more boisterous, Strickland’s clenched-teeth cymbals refusing to let go as Newsome sails apprehensively and Perdomo holds it down with a moody glimmer.

Relative Obscurity, for sextet, quickly shifts from a lushly syncopated horn chart to unchecked aggression by Bailey and then tensely hypnotic circularity from August. The album ends with a low-key, brooding knockout, For Miles, opening as a morose jazz waltz driven by Perdomo’s Satie-esque minimalism, Terry taking it just short of a triumphant hail-mary pass but instead alley-ooping to Perdomo who takes it up…and then down again into the eerily glimmering depths. August plays the album release show for this one at Birdland at 6 PM on Dec 6 with a slightly different cast; he’ll be at Shapeshifter Lab with the quartet on Dec 14 at 8 PM.

December 4, 2012 Posted by | jazz, latin music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment