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JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Yet Another Smart, Playful, Tuneful Album and a Week at the Vanguard by Miguel Zenon

Alto saxophonist Miguel Zenon is the rare bandleader who’s been able to keep a group together not only for months but years. In this increasingly challenging climate, that’s a major achievement. More than anything, Zenon’s new album Tipica – streaming at NPR – documents a hard-working band at the pinnacle of jazz technique and composition, a bunch of thoroughly road-tested tunes played by a band with intuitive chemistry. Zenon’s tunes literally leap from the page, impactfully and often poignantly. Variations on circular piano riffs are a recurrent trope. Although Zenon draws on his Nuyorican heritage as well as sounds from across the Americas, it would be shortsighted to pigeonhole his work as latin jazz. Tuneful postbop may be a much broader category, but that description encompasses the many, many flavors of his music. With his quartet – pianist Luis Perdomo, bassist Hans Glawischnig and drummer Henry Cole –  he’ll be airing out those numbers at the band’s upcoming stand at the Vanguard, with sets at 8:30 and 10:30 PM starting on Valentine’s Day and running through the 19th of the month. Cover is $30 which includes a drink.

The album opens with Academia, drawing on Zenón’s work raising the next generation of jazz greats at New England Conservatory. A tensely circling piano riff, Zenon’s lithely dancing, exuberant lines and Cole’s subtle snowflake cymbal accents kick it off. There’s some judiciously multitracked, interwoven sax as it hits a jaunty crescendo; Perdomo’s drive from enigmatic back toward the dancing main theme is typical of how he builds momentum. The ending is way too fun, and too funny, to give away, especially since the band reprises it elsewhere here.

The ballad after that, Cantor sends a shout-out to Zenón’s buddy Guillermo Klein, expanding from Perdomo’s tight clusters to balmy and rippling, with a Zenon solo that finally bursts in to flame. With Perdomo’s subtle humor, neoromantic glimmer and blues, Ciclo makes a great segue; the passage where Glawischnig shadows the bandleader is a recurrent meme with this band in concert.

The album’s title track begins with Perdomo running an altered salsa riff, then Zenon wryly syncopates it, Perdomo bringing hints of vintage swing to his signature lyricism, Cole circling the perimeter with a solo as he pans the speakers. Sangre de Mi Sangre is next, a tenderly pulsing ballad inspired by the composer’s four-year-old daughter, with a whispering, tiptoeing Glawischnig solo.

Zenon recycles a Glawischnig solo from the 2009 tune Calle Calma as a central theme in Corteza, the sax bobbing and weaving with a richly cantabile feel: this really is a song without words. Likewise, Entre Las Raíces – “Between the Roots” – is assembled around a Perdomo solo from Street View: Biker, from the pianist’s Awareness album. A wryly scurrying group improvisation opens it; Zenon echoes both Albert Ayler and Joe Maneri in the kind of vein that the title implies. Zenon likens Cole’s intricate work on the album’s closing diptych of sorts, Las Ramas (The Branches) to a drum etude. One quibble with this track: let’s leave whistling on albums to the likes of Paul Simon, huh?

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February 9, 2017 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Miguel Zenon Explores Multimedia Jazz and Nuyorican Identity on His Majestically Insightful New Big Band Album

It’s never safe to nominate anybody as being the very best on a given instrument – unless maybe it’s something obscure like the contrabass clarinet. As long as Kenny Garrett’s around, it’s especially unsafe to put an alto saxophonist at the front of that pack. But it is probably safe to say that no other alto player has been on as much of a creative roll as Miguel Zenon has been lately. His sound, and his songs, can be knotty and cerebral one minute, plaintive and disarmingly direct or irresistibly jaunty the next. His latest album, Identities Are Changeable (streaming at Spotify), explores the complexities of Nuyorican heritage with characteristic thoughtfulness and verve. He and his longtime quartet – pianist Luis Perdomo, bassist Hans Glawischnig and drummer Henry Cole – have a a rare Bronx show coming up on March 20 at 7:30 PM at the Hostos Center Theater, 450 Grand Concourse, 2/4/5 to Grand Concourse/149th St. Tix are very reasonable, $15/$7.50 stud/srs.

It’ll be especially interesting to see how Zenon handles the music from the new album onstage, not only because it’s a big band album but that it’s a mix of jazz and spoken word. The ensemble opens with De Donde Vienes (i.e. “where you from?”), which sets a pastiche of Zenon’s friends and family explaining their sometimes tangled roots over a lively, circularly vamping backdrop. The title track begins the same way, a discussion of cultural identity and assimilation set to a more skeletal vamp, which then builds to a bright, trumpet-fueled largescale arrangement. Zenon finally makes his entrance on a dancing yet pensive note, aptly depicting the New York/Puerto Rico dichotomy that sometimes pulls at Nuyoricans. Perdomo follows with one of his signature glistening interweaves before the brass brings back a tense balminess, a storm moving in on Spanish Harlem.

My Home, another big band number moves from shifting sheets of horns into a moody, syncopated clave lit up by more carefree Zenon phrasing behind the snippets of conversation and finally a majestic, darkly pulsing coda. Same Fight, an elegantly but intensely circling big band waltz offers some fascinating insights on commalitities between Nuyoricans and American blacks: “If I didn’t speak Spanish, people would assume I was African-American,” one commentator relates. A somewhat more sternly rhythmic variation, First Language, follows, with some deliciously interwoven brass and Tim Albright’s thoughtfully crescendoing trombone solo

Second Generation Lullaby bookends a starkly dancing bass solo with a more lavishly scored, warmly enveloping variation on the initial waltz theme. The most salsafied track is Through Culture and Tradition, mixing up high-voltage bomba and plena rhythms and riffage into a large ensemble chart that’s just as epically sweeping as it is hard-hitting. Zenon closes with a relatively brief outro that brings the album full circle. What might be coolest about the entire project is that all the talking isn’t intrusive and actually offers a very enlightening look at how cultures in New York both blend and stay proudly true to their origins. It’s a sweet album from Miel Music (sorry, couldn’t resist).

November 16, 2014 Posted by | jazz, latin music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Exhilarating Nuyorican-Flavored Jazz from Trumpeter Pete Rodriguez

A critic’s quote from the press release for trumpeter/singer Pete Rodriguez‘s amazing new album Caminando Con Papi (streaming in its entirety at Bandcamp) says something to the extent that Rodriguez is one of the few guys who’ve come out of the Nuyorican salsa world who can play jazz at the highest level. The opposite is also true: there are few jazz players who can play Nuyorican salsa at the highest level, because that requires complete attention to the melody, without cluttering it. Rodriguez – son of famed crooner Pete “El Conde” Rodriguez – inhabits both worlds like it’s second nature. This is an exhilarating album full of spine-tingling yet extremely terse solos and smartly counterintuitive tunesmithing from Rodriguez, accompanied by his Austin rhythm section of Sam Pankey on bass and Daniel Dufour on drums plus the always dangerous Luis Perdomo on piano and Robert Quintero conjuring up a one-man latin percussion army. Not only is this one of the best jazz albums of the year, it’s one of the best albums in any style of music released in 2013.

They open with Ruben Blades’ hit Tambo, alternating a blue-sky calm with biting, chromatic Perdomo riffage, then melding the two beneath a spaciously terse Rodriguez solo and an increasingly electric interweave of rapidfire countermelody as the drums and percussion charge. It ends as it began. Still Searching works what will become a vividly familiar calm/agitated dichotomy, Perdomo artfully implying the clave as he takes it into more contemplative territory before Rodriguez takes a long vector upwards – he may still be searching, but he’s on the right track.

Tick-Tock, a dreamy, resonant jazz waltz, is anything but mechanical, Perdomo’s spacious Rhodes chords anchoring Rodriguez’ lively trumpet, Pankey echoing Rodriguez’ judicious approach when he takes the handoff for his solo. Arlene artfully edges closer and closer to the blues on the wings of Rodriguez’ machinegunning riffage, morphing from swing to funk and then back again as Perdomo scampers with an unselfconscious joy.

The central dichotomy in the darkly lyrical No Lo Queria Hacer is spiraling trumpet versus a brooding backdrop, then they reverse roles with equally chilling results. The dynamically shifting tropical standard Cabildo rises from a pastorale to a romp, Rodriguez using it as a launch, Perdomo as a place to land: “Africa calls to me every day” in every possible way. The title track is a pensive latin soul elegy, Perdomo again adding gravitas against Rodriguez’ energetic attack up to a series of unexpected trick endings.

The harried, rapidfire horn intro of Shut Up And Play Your Horn gives no hint of the warmly lively, scurrying swing that follows, Perdomo on the murky side as expected and powerfully so. It’s Not Over Yet has Perdomo opening with an edgy modality ornamented by gritty bass riffage, Rodriguez introducing a moody calm that he works up to an exhilarating crescendo – it’s the best song on the album. They close with the hard-hitting, percussive El Camaleon, Rodriguez and Perdomo working dynamic contrasts up to a voodoo conga vamp where the two sorcerers unite.

November 7, 2013 Posted by | jazz, latin music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Miguel Zenon at the Top of His Game at the Vanguard and in Puerto Rico

What’s the likelihood of walking down into a random bar late on a Sunday and hearing an absolutely shattering version of one of the saddest songs ever written? If the bar is the Village Vanguard and the artist onstage is Miguel Zenon and his quartet, there’s your answer. That was how the Puerto Rican-born alto saxophonist began the final set of  his most recent weeklong stand there, with an angst-riddled version of the classic Sylvia Rexach bolero Alma Adentro (Deep in My Soul). That the songs after that one weren’t anticlimactic speaks to the ability of Zenon and the rest of the group – Luis Perdomo on piano, Hans Glawischnig on bass and Eric Doob on drums – to maintain a mood.

For someone as expansive as Zenon can be – the guy likes to stretch out, and is very generous with solos – he’s incredibly purposeful. He didn’t make an entrance until Perdomo had established a morosely glimmering ambience, pedaling the opening minor chord in tandem with the bass. Zenon then chose his spots, at one point lowlighting a particularly creepy Perdomo glissando with his own equally macabre, murky modalities. They brought the intensity to redline slowly, in clusters, from there, fueled by Doob’s hypnotically circular phrases, hitting hard but carefully articulate.

They kept the moody gravitas going with another Rexach hit, Olas y Arenas (Waves and Sand), matching the longing and alienation of the legendary Puerto Rican chanteuse’s original, Zenon establishing a suspenseful but vivid push-pull, Perdomo’s chenched-teeth, percussive attack contrasting with Zenon’s calm beachfront evocation, Perdomo quoting from Riders on the Storm before finally rising to a crescendo and a false ending. They lightened just a bit, reaching torward straight-up clave with a memorably rippling take of Rafael Hernandez’ slightly less angst-ridden Silencio, then worked a haunting sax/bass intro into a minor-key ballad that sounded like it was going to be yet another Rexach tune, or maybe Sumemrtime, but turned out to be neither. Artful polyrhythmic tradeoffs between Zenon and the rhythm section followed an expansive upward trajectory to a leaping, triumphant sax solo on the next number, they closed with an edgy, dancing number in 9/4, Zenon’s jaggedly terse lines handing over to Perdomo, who took it into the wee hours (literally) as Doob finally seized the role of one-man salsa rhythm section, firing off wry timbales and conga lines.

Zenon also has a strongly evocative new album out, recorded last year, which is somewhat different. Titled Oye! Live in Puerto Rico, it works an energetic yet restrained vibe. Culled from a two-night stand in Rio Piedras, it has an immediacy that gives the sense that those sitting under the air conditioner might have been especially grateful, even if if was dripping on them (which happens sometimes down there,  Puerto Rico not being a particularly seasonal place). Bookended by a brief, rather joyous intro and outro, Zenon makes his way through an allusive, long-form take on Oye Como Va before expanding on four numbers which are almost as long (the shortest is almost nine minutes), teaming up with electric bassist Aldemar Valentin plus drummer Tony Escapa and percussionist Reynaldo De Jesus.

The heavy percussion in tandem with the bass evoke a piano in many places: Valentin is the rare electric four-string jazz guy who doesn’t try to Jaco it. Zenon evokes the haunting timbre of a Middle Eastern ney flute on his own Hypnotized, with a wary/lively dichomtomy; the band take their time with Silvio Rodriguez’ El Necio, then romp through Zenon’s catchy, hypnotically insistent JOS Nigeria and then a long, simmering take of his Double Edge, the bass and then the sax jabbing at Escapa as the drums break loose. And in a wry nod to where the album was recorded, the photo under the album’s cd tray shows an old AC unit which seems to be mounted somewhat less than parallel to the floor and ceiling. Whether or not it was dripping is anyone’s guess.

May 21, 2013 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Magos Herrera’s Mexico Azul Reinvents Classic Film Music

Singer Magos Herrera’s latest effort Mexico Azul is a jazz (and occasionally jazz-pop) album first and foremost, using classic Mexican film themes from the 1940s through the 60s as a stepping-off point rather than trying to recapture the originals’ magically lo-fi yet towering ambience. Herrera’s unadorned, carefully modulated contralto is in full force here, yet she also shows off an impressively soaring upper register. This was obviously a labor of love for the chanteuse, who’s been outspoken about how this album is a celebration of the “Africanness” of Mexico and Mexican culture – an admirable goal, considering what a melting pot the country has been throughout history. The group behind her is first-class, with Luis Perdomo on piano, John Patitucci on bass, Alex Kautz on drums, Rogerio Boccato on percussion, Tim Hagans on trumpet and Adam Rogers (of Randy Brecker’s band) on guitars.

The opening track, Alvaro Carrillo’s Luz de Luna is much more terse than the lush ranchera original, with a spiky Rogers acoustic solo. Herrera’s version of Noche Criolla falls somewhere between the furtiveness of the original and the ecstatic Celia Cruz version, featuring more nicely slinky work from Rogers. Interestingly, Herrera’s version of Agustin Lara’s Azul is a lot more moody and expansive, Hagans’ occasional trumpet accents the only concession to the boisterousness of the original. Angelitos Negros, an orchestrated Pedro Infante bolero hit from the 1948 movie of the same name gets a smartly smoky treatment with Hagans mining that vein memorably. The airy, atmospheric intro to Alvaro Carrillo’s Seguire Mi Viaje’s leads into judiciously hushed clave jazz lowlit by Perdomo’s careful phrasing and an artfully tiptoeing Patitucci solo. It’s catchy and accessible without being the least bit cliched.

An original composition, Voz Antigua (A Mi Tierra) works an understatedly plaintive ambience and a gingerly shapeshifting piano groove. The cover of Lamento Jarocho distantly echoes the suspensefully pensive bounce of the Agustin Lara original, while another Alvaro Carrillo number, Que Sea Para Mi gets a gentle, nocturnal bossa bounce. Everybody from Javier Solis to Luis Miguel has covered Tres Palabras: Herrera and band reinvent it as a coyly understated romp, from the scatting on the intro to Hagans’ jauntily retro, bluesy muted solo. The most radical, and deliciously successful reinterpretation on the album, Puerto Rican composer Pedro Flores’ Obsesion is so slow that it’s creepy, Hagans lurking behind Perdomo and Rogers’ brooding, incisive lines. The album ends up with marvelously original take of Dos Gardenias, considerably darker and more suspenseful than the Antonio Machin tango from the 40s. This album works on a lot of levels, as jazz and also as pop music – the one thing this isn’t is nostalgia. For that you’ll have to go to youtube: many of the original versions of these songs are there.

July 22, 2011 Posted by | jazz, latin music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: The Gregg August Large Ensemble at the Jazz Gallery, NYC 4/10/09

This year the Jazz Gallery has been commissioning big band projects. More musicians should do what bassist/composer Gregg August (whose powerfully melodic contributions appear on the latest JD Allen Trio cd, reviewed here recently) did with his. Leading a ten-piece all-star ensemble on Friday night, August proved every bit as potent a composer as an instrumentalist, playing a thematic series of pieces inspired by and frequently including poems that explore race relations. Interpreting the texts both literally and thematically, August’s richly melodic, aptly relevant compositions created a program that screams out to be recorded.

 

August’s arrangements maximized the ensemble’s diverse talents: Jaleel Shaw’s ecstatically fiery alto sax flights, Sam Newsome’s rapidfire fluidity on soprano, JD Allen’s darkly direct terseness on tenor and pianist Luis Perdomo’s vividly bittersweet, concise chordal work along with his own straightforwardly melodic, sometimes latin-inflected lines, many of them echoing horn voicings. Drummer Donald Edwards’ strategy shaded toward darkness with innumerable well-placed cymbal accents and flourishes. The night opened on an auspicious note with an interpretation of Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Shaw building his final solo to screaming, gritty overtones illustrating the exasperation of confinement over the rhythm section’s staggered beat. Sweet Words, based on a sacastic Langston Hughes poem about (what else) bigotry proved to be a pretty straightforward, tuneful ensemble piece highlighted by a relentlessly intense, expansive Perdomo solo.

 

A New Orleans tableau, Sky, based on poet Richard Katrovas’s encounter with a possibly homeless young black man painted a stark picture of a balmy morning tinged with misunderstanding and regret, Allen’s lyrical tenor opening against pensively crescendoing piano and bowed bass, the group pulsing through a funereal arrangement colored by rubato drums. Perhaps the high point of the night was Your Only Child, a literal illustration of Marilyn Nelson’s poem A Wreath for Emmett Till, a recording of Till’s mother describing her murdered son’s mutilated body playing over the ominous atmosphere of the intro, singer Miles Griffith echoing the song’s theme and ending with a fervent evocation of sobbing agony.

 

The second set maintained the captivating intensity of the first, opening with the slinky, insistent I Rise (a musical translation of the famous Maya Angelou poem) highlighted by a joyous solo from Shaw followed by a characteristically thoughtful, matter-of-fact one from Allen. The lushly orchestrated, Mingus-inflected I Sang in the Sun (from the Carolyn Kizer poem) brought back the vocals, lowlit by some marvelously succinct shading by Thomas. A Cornelius Eady poem about an encounter with a racist in an ice cream parlor provided a solid platform for a slyly bluesy trombone solo and some funky work by August. The night wound up with Letter to America (on a Francisco Alarcon poem), impassioned vocals echoed by John Bailey’s blazing, bluesy trumpet and yet another uncompromisingly confrontational solo by Allen building to a casually intense coda. In a year of some extraordinary live jazz, a packed house got to witness what has to be one of the highlights of the year so far.

 

April 12, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment