Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The Truth About Bio Ritmo

Bio Ritmo’s new album La Verdad uses oldschool, classic Fania era salsa as its stepping-off point and blends in trippy, hypnotic, sometimes fiery elements of Ethiopian jazz, Afrobeat and dub for a sound that’s absolutely unique, and absolutely psychedelic. Keyboardist Marlysse Simmons-Argandona is their secret weapon. Sometimes she anchors the music with darkly reverberating Fender Rhodes lines; other times she goes way up for a glimmering, pointillistic, starlit vibe; then she’ll swoop in with the organ or shift to swinging Afro-Cuban salsa piano riffs. The horns move from bright, incisive bursts, to big, lushly jazzy swells, with frequent breaks for individual solos, as the timbales rattle, the congas hold the tunes close to the ground and the bass rises with a body-tugging groove. Singer Rei Alvarez is a mercurial, slyly surreal presence: when there are lyrics here, they work on several different levels.

As you would expect from a great oldschool album, there’s a distinct Side One and Side Two side here. The opening cut features unexpected touches like wah-wah keys and a blippy bass solo along with some tasty brass parts. A couple of the jazzier tracks, like the title number and Caravana del Vejicante (Clown Parade) often resemble the excellent, shapeshifting latin-influenced jazz group Either/Orchestra, with their cleverly shifting brass segments and smirking keyboard interludes. The third track, Dina’s Mambo, contrasts psychedelic slinky, conspiratorially swinging, psychedelic keys with hi-beam horns; the fourth, Carnaval, builds nonchalantly to a punked-out Afrobeat feel. There’s also the deliciously noir Verguenza (Shame); the bouncy, surprisingly carefree, sarcastic Majadero (The Noodge); the even creepier, Thelonious Monk-ish Lola’s Dilemma with its subtle dub echoes spicing up a tiptoeing son montuno melody; and the hidden track, an absolutely killer dub version of the second cut. If you wish you’d lived through the classic salsa era of the 70s – or if you did – this one’s for you. Bio Ritmo play the album release show for this one tonight at 10 at Southpaw; those who prefer the superior sonics at SOB’s should check out their Manhattan release show there at 8 PM on Nov 18. Also recommended: Bio Ritmo’s sister band Miramar, who recreate classic Puerto Rican boleros from the 1950s (and create some of their own) with a similarly dark psychedelic edge.

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October 28, 2011 Posted by | latin music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Album of the Day 8/5/11

Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Friday’s album is #543:

Ruben Blades y Seis Del Solar – Escenas

One of the most socially aware artists of the classic salsa era, Ruben Blades gets extra props for introducing Hector Lavoe to Willie Colon while working in the Fania Records mailroom and writing songs on the side. The rest is history. While he bridges several eras, Blades’ songwriting has never wavered. The production on this 1984 release isn’t as ballsy as it would have been ten years previously, but the songs are consistently excellent, even Silencios, which is badly miscast as a pop ballad. Otherwise, there’s the starkly scurrying widow’s lament Cuentas Del Alma; the scathing Tierra Dura, which addresses famine in Ethiopia; the blackly humorous La Cancion Del Final Del Mundo; Sorpresas, which continues the story of the struggling blue-collar Pedro Navaja, star of Blades’ signature song; Caina, a gritty look at the not-so-glamorous side of the cocaine trade (“Why would you want to do coke/It makes you edgy and obnoxious”) and an update on the Los Van Van hit Muevete. Here’s a random torrent.

August 5, 2011 Posted by | latin music, lists, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Album of the Day 7/23/11

Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Saturday’s album is #556 – on a day like this, we figured this one would be especially appropriate:

Arsenio Rodriguez y Su Conjunto – Sabroso y Caliente

Rustic yet cutting-edge for its time, this is an update on classic Cuban son. Bandleader Rodriguez, blinded in a childhood accident, played the Cuban acoustic guitar known as the tres. Highly sought after in his later years as a sideman, he was a major influence on the great salsa bands of the 70s. This flavorful, hot 1957 session carves out a niche halfway between the blazing big band sounds of Tito Puente or Perez Prado, and the Cuban country music that Rodriguez grew up with. Some may find the vocals a little over the top, but the band is cooking. The dozen tracks here include the soaring, upbeat Carraguao Alante; the lush, minor key Hay Fuego En el 23; Buenavista en Guaguancó, an old song from Rodriguez’s small-combo period in the 40s; the slinky Blanca Paloma; the sly mambo Mami Me Gusto, the hypnotically insistent La Fonda de Bienvenido, and Adorenla Como a Marti, which evades the censors by allusively referencing the notorious 1912 massacres of Afro-Cubans on the island. Here’s a random torrent via Global Groovers.

July 23, 2011 Posted by | latin music, lists, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Album of the Day 7/1/11

Every day (pretty much, anyway), our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Friday’s album was #578:

Hector Lavoe – 15 Exitos

This is a decent if incomplete representation of the career of El Cantante, regarded by many as the greatest classic salsa singer of the golden age back in the 70s. His life, recounted in the 2003 biopic of the same name, was as uncertain as the angst and passion he channeled in his songs was direct. He died young, in 1993. This compilation, which covers pretty much his entire career, has his signature songs, El Cantante and Mi Gente; the tongue-in-cheek El Rey de la Puntualidad; the rough-and-ready Hacha y Machete, from 1970; the scorching Mentira, from 1976; the much slicker Noche de Farra, from 1980, and Cancer, from 1985. While the brass wails behind him, he’s never at ease: it seems that Fama was the last thing he wanted. Here’s a random torrent via Principiante Salsero.

July 2, 2011 Posted by | latin music, lists, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Album of the Day 3/6/11

Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Sunday’s album is #695:

The Fania All-Stars – Live at Yankee Stadium Vol. 2

Conceived as a branding mechanism for the label, the Fania All-Stars were supposed to be the greatest salsa band of their era – a goal that wasn’t all that hard to achieve because virtually everybody in the band was a bandleader. The lineup reads like a latin music hall of fame: Larry Harlow, Justo Betancourt, Yomo Toro, Johnny Pacheco, Ray Baretto, Willie Colon, Hector Lavoe and literally dozens of others. From 1967 to the early 80s, they put out one ecstatic, danceable album after another, which makes this a particularly hard choice. The four-cd box set Ponte Duro: The Fania All-Stars Story was awfully tempting, but since this group was first and foremost a live orchestra, that’s where they did their best work. This scorching 1976 set, most of it actually recorded in Puerto Rico (the sound mix there was better than what they had in the Bronx), captures them at the peak of their brass-heavy power. These are long, psychedelic jams: Hermandad Fania, which gets things cooking right off the bat; the eleven-minute Celia Cruz epic Bemba Colora; Ismael Quintana’s first big, soulful hit, Mi Debilidad; as well as Echate Pa ‘lla and the fourteen-minute stomp Congo Bongo. Here’s a random torrent via sogoodmusic.

March 6, 2011 Posted by | latin music, lists, Music, music, concert, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Three Vastly Different New Spins on Afro-Cuban Music

For those of you in el barrio – or your own private barrio – the Spanish Harlem Orchestra’s latest album Viva La Tradicion is old news (it came out in September). If you missed it, it’s a treat for anyone with fond memories of the Fania era. Rather than looking forward, it looks back, sometimes as far back as the Pedro Flores classic Linda, represented here with a fast slinky bounce. It’s sort of a collection of new and vintage salsa with a conscious theme: pride of ownership. The Orchestra do not take their name, or the historical weight it carries, in vain, something you would expect from a cast of some of the best latin players in the business, many of them Tito Puente vets. None other than Paul Simon served as co-executive producer. As exemplified by the opening track, written by Cuban bandleader Manuel Simonet, this is salsa dura with modern production values. The blazing brass of trombonists Jimmy Bosch and Dan Reagan and trumpeters Hector Colon and John Walsh sends the conscious dance tune Mi Herencia Latina off into a fiery Cuban sunset. Mitch Frohman’s baritone sax spirals out of an expansive piano solo by bandleader Oscar Hernandez on the jazziest cut here, Rumba Urbana. Salsa vet Gil Lopez, who arranged much of this, has a lush, lyrical version of his ballad Nuestra Cancion here; there are also a couple of slow cha-cha’s, the bolero-flavored, suspenseful La Fiesta Empezo and the aptly swinging El Negro Tiene Tumbao that closes the album, with guest vocals from Isaac Delgado. The percussion trio of Luisito Quintero on timbales, George Delgado on congas and Jorge Gonzalez on bongos rumble, clatter and groove behind the snaky, melodic bass pulse of Gerardo Madera.

Straight from Cuba comes alto saxophone phenom and bandleader Michel Herrera, with a far more modern sound. Although rooted in Afro-Cuban rhythms, especially clave, he and his band – the core includes Roger Riso on keys, Julio Cesar Gonzales on bass, Hector Quintana on guitar, Ismel Witnall on percussion, Yissi Garcia on drums and Eduardo Sandoval on trombone – shoot for a sound that’s jazzier and more deliberately cerebral. His compositions shift shape, sometimes on a dime, go doublespeed, go back in time eighty years (once with a beautifully rustic percussion-and-piano interlude) and give his band – especially trumpeter Julio Regal, whose work with a mute packs a thoughtfully crescendoing punch – a wide playing field. Pequena Historia, the first full-length track on his new album En La Espera, sets buoyant horns over a funky rhythm section, Herrera’s sax moving from balminess to bluster, followed by an eerily fluid, portamento-ish electric organ solo. The slinky clave groove Estaciones surprisingly serves as a launching pad for the most boisterous, bop-tinged playing here; with its sizzling piano cascades, soul-flavored electric guitar and tricky polyrhythms, the title track attests to Herrera’s wide-ranging eclecticism. Sometimes he gets carried away: the electric instruments lend an unwanted fusiony feel on occasion, and the one “R&B” flavored vocal number here is a bad joke. Still in his twenties, Herrera is a winner (and now a judge) of the Cuban Joven Jazz competition: he caught the eye of Wynton Marsalis, who’s become a sort of mentor. As the US hopefully moves toward normalizing relations with Cuba, Herrera and his colleagues deserve more of a presence here: this is an auspicious look at a scene that’s been percolating too far under the radar.

Finally, just in time for the Festival of Lights, there’s Celebrations, by Eugene Marlow’s Heritage Ensemble: latinized versions of familiar and not-so-familiar themes for Chanukah and Purim. Hybrids like this are actually more common than you might think – we gave the thumbs-up to the latest album by Kat Parra & the Sephardic Music Experience early this year – and Jews have long played an important role in latin music, especially jazz (Larry Harlow springs to mind). Here pianist Marlow is joined by legendary latin bandleader Bobby Sanabria on drums, Frank Wagner on bass, Cristian Rivera on percussion and Michael Hashim on alto and soprano sax, with pianist Nada Loutfi guesting on a brooding, expansively swinging Marlow original.

Hashim, in particular, gives these rearrangements a sly, genial bounce. Chanukah, O Chanukah gets a funky pulse and then it swings, down to just baroque-tinged piano rivulets. The famous dreidel theme is reinvented as a feisty rhumba with honking sax and inspired contributions from everyone. A Purim melody becomes a Brubeck-esque ballad, goes psychedelic with Rhodes piano and then hits a disco groove. An old Talmudic melody gets a warily nocturnal art-rock piano arrangement; the final number, seemingly a reprise of the opening theme, has a swinging Slaughter on Tenth Avenue vibe. The band are obviously having great fun playing hide and seek with the melodies to the point where they’re completely unrecognizable: all this is as fun as it is creative. Although professionally produced, Marlow’s five-minute spoken-word “explanation” of the band on the last track gives the cd the feel of a demo, an audio press kit for those who might be interested in hiring the band for a simcha. It would have been more effective – not to mention less expensive – to include this in, say, a press release, or the cd booklet.

December 2, 2010 Posted by | jazz, latin music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Album of the Day 10/18/10

Every day our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Monday’s album is #834:

Willie Colon – La Gran Fuga

That two trombones, a piano, bass and three percussionists could create a sound this big is stunning. This one was literally Colon’s big break, and forty years later, it’s taken on iconic status. As bandleader and trombonist, he gets top billing even though his equally gifted collaborator, Héctor Lavoé took all the vocals (and if you search for these songs you’ll find them much more easily if you’re looking for El Canario). It’s also a major moment in salsa history because it’s such a melting pot (that could be said about latin music in general, but especially New York salsa). Surprisingly, the big hit off the album is a catchy reworking of a Guyanese nursery rhyme, Ghana’E. The mini-suite Panameña is a bomba track, a joyous shout-out to Puerto Rican culture – remember, salsa began in Cuba, so the implication here is that the time has come for el barrio. There’s also the swaying dance hit Barrunto; the hypnotically slinky, beautifully brooding No Cambiaré; the gentle, lovingly mocking Abuelita (poking fun at an old lady’s crazy vernacular); and the not-so-gentle faux Mexican dance Cancion por Me Suegra. Both Colon and Lavoé would go on to bigger and more popular projects, but this captures that beautiful moment where Afro-Cuban-based music was just starting to morph into the big, orchestral Fania sound that would become just as iconic five or six years later. Here’s a random torrent.

October 18, 2010 Posted by | latin music, lists, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Septeto Nacional Make the Buena Vista Social Club Seem Like New Jacks

How’s this for oldschool: Septeto Nacional have been around since 1927. The current incarnation of the band made its US live debut last year; this album, Sin Rhumba, No Hay Son, their debut recording outside of Cuba, makes the Buena Vista Social Club seem modern by comparison. Their founder, bassist Ignacio Piniero (1888-1969) is credited with introducing horns to Cuban music: sin Ignacio, no hay Machito? It’s rustic, roughhewn, often joyous but also plaintive oldtime latin music. The African clave beat is there as it is in so many latin styles, but Crispin Diaz Hernandez’s deft percussion lurks behind a thicket of richly jangly acoustic guitar from Dagoberto Sacerio Oliva and tres by Enrique Collazo, spiced with Agustin Someillan Garcia’s trumpet, with Raul Acea Rivera on bass and the aptly nicknamed Eugenio “Raspa” Rodriguez on lead vocals. It’s a mix of originals along with a couple of vintage Piniero numbers in several vintage styles including son montuno, rhumba, guaracha and the sad, pretty bolero that’s the third track here – did Willie Nelson hear that before he wrote Let It Be Me?

Collazo steals the show here, particularly on the album’s best cut, El Plato Roto (The Broken Plate) and its stinging, spiky solo at the end. The catchy, sly minor-key dance number, Mueve Tu Cintura (literal translation: shake your hips) has the tres casually whipping through a long, biting series of chords at the end. And his incisive jangle drives the sassy La Mulata Rumbera (featuring an inspired vocal by guest Bertha Portuondo) and the bouncy Me Dieron la Clave (They Gave Me the Clave), with a solo that literally snarls. The Piniero tracks share a vibe that’s antique yet ahead of its time: Arrollo Cubano foreshadows what will become calypso, while Donde Andabas Lanoche (Where Did You Go Last Night) is an island take on flamenco. La Rhumba No Es Como Ayer is actually so ayer it’s not funny and it’s a fun trip back in time: what mento is to reggae, this is to salsa. There’s also the slow stately swinging bolero En Tus Ojos Yo Veo (I Look in Your Eyes), the wry El Discreto (a cautionary tale – be careful who you confide in) and the boisterous, jazzy La Fiesta de los Animales that closes the album. It’s a lot of fun and it’s out now on World Village Music.

September 14, 2010 Posted by | latin music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, Uncategorized, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Tito Gonzalez – Al Doblar La Esquina

For those who love oldschool latin music, this is a straight shot of rum. For those who discovered it via the Buena Vista Social Club, it’s…hmm…a good mojito. Cuban expat tres (Cuban guitar) player and singer Tito Gonzalez is a feel-good story: he got to see the world as a commercial fisherman, drove a cab, studied under Papi Oviedo of the Buena Vista Social Club and then with Cuban guitar legend Octavio Sanchez Cotán. Courtesy of the other musicians in his taxicab union, Gonzalea made his pro debut at 40 and finally made it to the US in 2000 where he became a fixture of the San Francisco Bay Area latin music scene. Backed by an absolutely dynamite, horn-heavy band, Gonzalez takes you back to the future not in a DeLorean but in a 1955 Nash Ambassador, to a time when Guantanamo meant gambling and girls rather than Geneva Convention violations.

Because that era wasn’t so far removed from a previous one without electricity, many of these songs show their folksong roots. Cuba being an island nation, a whole lot of diverse styles washed up onshore, many of them represented here. Traditional Cuban son is the framework for all the songs here, but there are also elements of rhumba, tango and especially bolero on the slower numbers. A vibrant call-and-response vibe is everywhere, whether between lead vocals and backing chorus, piano and horns, or, in too few places actually, Gonzalez’ spiky tres and the piano. The songs are a mix of party anthems and aching ballads, notably La Despedida (The Goodbye), a big, intense Machito-style three-minute masterpiece with a strikingly haunting horn chart. The slinky bolero-inflected ballad Aquel Viejo Amor (That Old Love), written for Gonzalez’ former wife, subtly works a bittersweet piano riff all the way through to a gorgeous, horn-driven crescendo at the end. The wistful Cancion Por Bonnie, another bolero-based tune is another standout track with some clever baton-passing among the horns. The album’s final track, Evocation is straight-up oldschool son with intense, percussive piano, Gonzalez finally wailing on his frets and joining the fun. It all makes for great summertime music – maybe it’s just as well we’re so far behind the eightball getting around to giving this delightful album a spin.

May 26, 2010 Posted by | latin music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: The Rough Guide to Arabic Lounge

Sometimes the Rough Guide albums have funny titles (how about the Rough Guide to Blues Revival, released in…2009?!?) For those of you who are wondering what on earth this one could be, good news, it’s not really a lounge album at all. Rather, the Rough Guide to Arabic Lounge is a compilation of some of the most interesting, cutting-edge, genre-blurring Middle Eastern flavored music from around the globe, along with some gorgeously familiar traditional sounds. As with the other Rough Guides over the past year, this one is a twofer including an excellent bonus cd by Algerian gypsy-rai songwriter Akim El Sikameya and his band.

If you’re a fan of this kind of stuff, the compilation will stretch your ears. The huge Lebanese hit Al Guineya by Ghazi Abdel Baki that opens it sounds like Leonard Cohen in Arabic, a tango with balmy sax, tasteful fingerpicked minor-key acoustic guitar and Abdel Baki’s sepulchral vocals. Hymn of the Sea by Palestinian chanteuse Rim Banna is slinky trip-hop with accordion and upright bass, evocative of a Stevie Wonder hit from the 70s. Lebanese oud virtuoso and longtime Marcel Khalife sideman Charbel Rouhana contributes Ladyfingers, a violin-and-oud instrumental like the Gipsy Kings. Arabic chanteuse Soumaya Baalbaki is represented by a beautiful habibi jazz song, followed by Emad Ashour’s solo cello taqsim, bracing, intense and in a maqam (scale) that’s not stereotypically Arabic.

Ishtar, of Alabina fame has a characteristically gypsy-inflected levantine dance-pop tune, contrasting mightily with trumpet innovator Amir ElSaffar’s almost bop-jazz instrumental and its boisterous conversation between his quartertone trumpet and a low-register ney flute. Mohamed Sawwah offers a murky piano-and-vocal ballad; there’s also Middle Eastern inflected Cuban son by Hanine y Son Cubano, an Iraquicized oud version of Johnny Guitar by the late oud legend Munir Bashir; the haunting, lush Jordanian harmonies of Dozan; a tersely fiery bouzouki solo by Mohamed Houssein, and Azzddine with Bill Laswell doing a gypsy melody as Morroccan trip-hop with spacey vocoder vocals!

The Akim El Sikameya cd is worth owning by itself and makes a nice bonus. The obvious comparison is Manu Chao, El Sikameya drawing on the native Algerian trip-hop rhythm with frequent gypsy guitar or accordion accents and more modern touches like oud played through a chorus box on the first track, and downtempo, loungey electric piano on another. They start one song out with what’s essentially Egyptian reggae, quickly morphing into a brisk gypsy dance; the later part of the album features some absolutely chilling, beautiful violin work. Another strong effort from the Rough Guide folks, who have really been on a roll lately and should definitely be on your radar if you’re a world music fan.

March 17, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment