Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

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.

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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

Larry Harlow’s La Raza Latina at Lincoln Center

Saturday night out back of Lincoln Center was a mob scene, as crowded as it’s ever been in recent memory. There was a good reason for that: a major moment in latin music history, the live premiere of Larry Harlow’s visionary 1977 album La Raza Latina. An ambitious, epic suite, the legendary bandleader and Fania All-Stars’ pianist wrote it as a history of latin music and the people who made it, via every rhythm that’s ever come out of Africa via Cuba. With only two rehearsals, Harlow worked like a santero out in front of the band, whether leading them in a hypnotic conga vamp that went on for minutes on end, or shifting in a split second from a salsa bounce to a slinky rhumba, or toward the end, into some of the wildest big band jazz this city’s seen this year.

The reason why the suite hadn’t been played in its entirety live since being recorded is because staging it is considerably more cumbersome than putting a ten-piece salsa combo together. For this performance, the massive latin big band and orchestra, including a string section, were accompanied by several pairs of dancers who spun ecstatically throughout several of the longer segments. The first part, Africa, began with Adonis Puentes on vocals, which from the VIP section (the catwalk across the street on 65th, where those sufficiently agile or ambitious to climb up could actually catch an occasional glimpse of the band from across the way) weren’t easy to hear, but they resonated with the crowd. The band romped through a rousing, vintage 70s Fania era salsa anthem, a long, hypnotically mysterious Afro-Cuban drum vamp, and back into the blaze and swells of the horns. The second section, Caribe chronicles the cross-pollination that happened in the Caribbean (heavily influenced by the then-obscure Cuban big band Orquesta Cubana de Musica Moderna), where the rhumba rhythms first made their appearance. By now Ruben Blades had joined the festivities, one of the concluding segments featuring several prominent and dramatically crescendoing, Dave Valentin-inflected flute passages.

Nueva York 1950s & 1960s was the most diverse and intense section, especially an ominous noir latin funk groove that cut out much too soon in favor of another blazing dance number. The final part, Futuro envisions salsa growing to further incorporate elements of jazz and even the avant garde, moving through two surprise endings and a long, intense timbale vamp to a whirlwind cauldron of noise, then back again several times, the percussionists somehow managing not to let go of the piece as it spun completely off its hinges: imagine an army of Charlie Parkers at their craziest. The piece wound up with one last salsa number that they finally took all the way up with a big crescendo that was sort of the equivalent of Afro-Cuban heavy metal. Considering how exhilarating this show was – and how visibly out-of-breath Harlow and his band were afterward – one can only imagine how good they’d sound after more than the two rehearsals they’d managed to get in for this one.

And a big shout-out to the Bobby Sanabria Big Band, whose equally epic, tectonically shifting textures and bracing, striking charts gave Harlow and his crew a hard act to follow.

August 17, 2010 Posted by | concert, jazz, latin music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Some Sweet Retro Cuban Sounds for Summer

Sierra Maestra were one of the original son revivalists in Cuba back in the 70s. Had that era’s Cuban music been widely available for export – or widely available island-wide, for that matter – they would have beaten the Buena Vista Social Club to the punch by about twenty years. What differentiates Sierra Maestra is that they mixed classic covers with original compositions done retro style. With all but two of the original members still alive, their new album Sonando Ya continues in that vein. Their sound is a lot more rustic than the Fania-style salsa that everybody knows and loves, more rustic than Machito, for that matter. This is Cuban roots music, bouncing and shuffling along with a clatter of a four-man percussion section, guiro, tres, guitar, bass, trumpet and vocals. But unlike what the title suggests, it’s not really dreamy at all. There’s a joy and swing to everything here – this is dance music, after all, and it’s no less vital than the stuff the band was doing thirty years ago.

Vocals rotate around the band in a sometimes exuberant, sometimes sly call-and-response. The opening son montuno tune is a tribute to mountain roots, with a characteristically catchy trumpet chorus. A trio of voices resound throughout a bouncy, dramatically tinged guaracha son ballad, reminding not to hate on them for their good fortune. A cautionary tale about a gold-digging girlfriend works a contemporary salsa tune quietly and bucolically, fretted instruments taking the place of the piano; a plaintive oldschool son number pleads for forgiveness, lit up with a long tres solo that vividly underscores son’s contemporaneous relationship with jazz. The rest of the album mixes bustling  dance tunes with a handful of ballads. Maybe it’s the time of year, but this cd has a visceral heat to it, evoking a Hemingway-era milieu, rum and sugarcane and heavy Caribbean night air. With summer going full blast, albums like this makes more and more sense. It’s out now on World Village Music.

July 8, 2010 Posted by | latin music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, 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

Genre-Smashing New Guitar Albums from Chris Burton Jacome and Lawson Rollins

Chris Burton Jacome and Lawson Rollins are both gifted acoustic guitarists with individual voices, each with an innovative, flamenco-inspired approach and a new album out. Jacome imaginatively blends both rock and Middle Eastern melodies within a traditional gypsy flamenco framework, while Rollins brings a biting flamenco edge to his groove-oriented world jazz instrumentals. If flamenco or gypsy guitar is your thing, both of these guys should be on your radar, particularly since each has his best days ahead of him.

Jacome is a feel-good story: as a teenager, he wanted to be Eddie Van Halen, but was happily disabused of that fantasy when he discovered flamenco. He immersed himself in it the old-fashioned way, learning from the source from Roma in Spain. His new album Levanto is a fullscale ballet, a theme and variations complete with dancing – as a purist, he’s continuing a centuries-old tradition that blends music with dance, legend and storytelling. Dynamics are his strong suit: he’s the rare guitarist you actually want to hear more of (lots more of, actually – as with Rollins, he’s sometimes conspicuously absent on his own album). Backed by the vivid, incisive violin of Jennifer Mayer, Adrian Goldenthal on bass, Kristofer Hill on percussion and a trio of brassy vocalists (Chayito Champion, Olivia Rojas and Vanessa Lopez), the group alternate between fiery dance instrumentals, dramatic ballads, poignantly fingerpicked passages and a lot of tap-dancing. Jacome makes artful use of the Arabic hijaz scale as well as interpolating catchy rock passages within the compositions’ stately architecture. The problem is that as an album, the segues are jarring – just when a song seems about to sail joyously over the edge, here come those dancers again. It’s easily solved once you upload the tracks and sequence them yourself (it should be emphasized that fans of oldschool flamenco will have no problem with this; however, a lot of momentum gets lost if you just leave the tracks in their original order). What this really should have been is a DVD – it leaves the impression that there’s a whole side to the spectacle that doesn’t translate if the audio is all you have.

Rollins comes at flamenco as a jazz player with blazing speed and a wealth of original ideas: by the time the fifth track begins, he’s delved into rhumba, samba, Cuban son and back again. Like Jacome, he has an inspired cast of characters behind him including Charlie Bisharat on violin, Dave Bryant on percussion, the great Iranian composer Kayhan Kalhor guesting on kamancheh on one track and Airto Moreira, Flora Purim and their daughter Diana Booker contributing backing vocals. Rollins tosses off one lightning phrase after another, sometimes handing them off to Bisharat, other times to the wryly muted trumpet of Jeff Elliott. He imaginatively works the traditional descending scale of flamenco music in all kinds of new ways, even adding some tersely textural electric guitar beauty to the title track. The highlight of the cd is the triptych at the end, the Migration Suite, upping the ante with biting, Middle Eastern flavored arrangements and motifs. The problem here is the production: when there are horns here, they’re so compressed that they sound like a synthesizer, an effect that compromises all the playing here, even Rollins’. Where the Brazilian vocalists might have been able to contribute something memorable, they’re as buried in the mix as the Jordanaires on an old Elvis record. Even Kalhor gets flattened out. There may be a reason behind this: one of the cuts here was a “most added” track on easy-listening radio earlier in the year. Which on one level is fine, Rollins deserves to be heard – but in a context that does justice to the fire and imagination of his playing, his compositions and the peers he plays with. More than anything, this reminds of the work of another quality guitarist, Peter White, whose series of world music-inspired acoustic instrumental albums about 20 years ago typecast him as an easy-listening, smooth jazz guy rather than the world class player he is.

Lucky Arizonans can see Chris Burton Jacome play the cd release show for this one at the Chandler Center for the Arts, 250 N Arizona Ave. in Chandler on May 2.

April 27, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review – The Rough Guide to the Music of Cuba

Pretty much every attempt to assemble a definitive anthology of music for a particularly country or style opens a can of worms. Credit the Rough Guide folks for at least taking a stab at this. Arguments over who ought to be on The Rough Guide to the Music of Cuba – or who ought not to be on it – could go on for days. “No Machito?!? Sacrilege!” But if you look at this simply as a sort of digital mixtape, it’s a fun dance album. As with the other cds in the series, they compilers start with a vintage sound and move forward, in this case to some of the first-rate (and impressively retro) bands coming out of Cuba in recent years. As has been the case with the Rough Guide cds lately, there’s also a bonus cd, in this case by the long-running, well-loved Sierra Maestra, who’ve been keeping the flame of vintage Cuban son music alive since 1976. As an introduction for the uninitiated, this is as good a place to start as any.

Los Estrellas De Arieto contribute Que Traigan El Quaguanco, a deliciously long oldschool-flavored son number by these 70s stars. Sierra Maestra’s El Son No Puede Fallar works an insistent groove for all it’s worth. For piano-based salsa, there’s the Afro Cuban All Stars’ Reconciliacion. The most innovative of all the cuts here is from the catalog of the late, legendary Buena Vista Social Club bassist Orlando Cachaito Lopez: Mis Dos Pequenas is an eerily slinky quaguanco instrumental, a lushly vivid mix of slide guitar, organ and violin.

The Afro Cuban Jazz Project’s Coge Este Tumbao introduces a bright, happy, more modern feel with call-and-response vocals. Percussion gets representation from the late Pancho Quinto’s hypnotic, shuffling La Gorra. Of the more recent material on the compilation, Mexico-based Azucar Negra probably represent the best of the current crop of veterans still active here. There’s also Sama Y El Expreso De Oriente’s big hit Guarachando from a couple of years ago; Maikel Blanco Y Su Salsa Mayor‘s tersely exuberant Que Tengo along with slick numbers by Los Van Van, Osdalgia and Elio Reve Jr. and a lone accession to reggaeton by Guantanamo natives Madera Limpia.

The Sierra Maestra cd is as richly, rustically evocative as ever, guitar, piano, horns and percussion interwoven into a hypnotic, hip-tugging net that shifts under your feet while it keeps you moving. Try standing still to this: impossible. At better record stores and online.

August 4, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Quimbombo at Stuyvesant High School Auditorium, NYC 7/29/09

Quimbombo is a Cuban stew and also the title of a famous Cuban son dance number from the 1950s. This particular Quimbombo is similarly sabroso (tasty). With two guitars, fretless bass, trumpet, sax and a literal herd of percussionists on everything from congas to timbales to campana, cajon and bass drum, they play son, the precursor of salsa that took root in 1930s Cuba and was repopularized sixty years later by the Buena Vista Social Club. The way this band plays it, it sounds like salsa but with guitar in place of the piano. As their show Wednesday night – moved indoors because of the rain – proved, they’re ecstatically good at it. Sitting and watching them rumble and rhumba through one hypnotic groove after another was viscerally uncomfortable – the body unconsciously starts to sway, it wants to get up and dance!

Their set mixed classics along with originals from their most recent cd Conga Electrica. Their first number set the tone for the night with a long, crescendoing guitar duel, David Oquendo’s incisive electric nylon-string chords trading off with the acoustic player’s gorgeously steely, ringing tones. They followed that with a swaying ballad, Cuando Tu Vayas A Oriente (When You Go East) and then Con El Trapo Rojo (With the Red Flag – a bullfighting reference), building from an ecstatic percussion intro with booming bass drum to a hypnotic verse with electric guitar and then finally a long, trance-inducing one-chord jam out. This could be the band’s theme song – or one of them anyway, considering how often they manage to namecheck themselves when there’s room.

Que Me Importa A Mi (What Do I Care) scampered along playfully with chorus-box electric guitar; the next tune went on hypnotically for what seemed at least ten minutes, highlighted by a strikingly murky flute solo, not what you would expect from an instrument with such a high register. By the time they got to their gorgeously ringing signature song – a hit for legendary Cuban pianist Luis “Lili” Martinez – there was finally some movement toward the back of the auditorium. There’s no sitting still to stuff like this.

July 30, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment