Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

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

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.

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

Album of the Day 10/11/11

As we do pretty much every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Tuesday’s album was #477:

Orquesta Harlow – La Raza Latina: A Salsa Suite

This is Fania Records’ All-Star pianist Larry Harlow’s 1977 attempt to capsulize the entire history of latin music in a six-part suite. As history, there are secret corners it misses – lots of them; as music, it’s a titanic, slinky blast of horns, percussion and orchestra. Nestor Sanchez sings the classic salsa of the title track, followed by the percussion-centric Africa; the Afro-Cuban Caribbean and Caribbean Pt. 2, which blends in soca and Puerto Rican sabor; the deliciously gritty New York 1950s and 1960s and the whirlwind Futuro which blends Mingus bustle with late 70s latin disco! Too surreal to imagine, you just have to hear it…and dance to it. Here’s a random torrent.

October 13, 2011 Posted by | latin music, lists, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Miramar’s Para Siempre – Get It While It Lasts

Miramar’s Para Siempre stands out as the most noir album of recent months. The vintage Puerto Rican bolero band’s main instrument is keyboardist Marlysse Simmons-Argandoña’s tremoloing, funereal Farfisa organ, over which singers Rei Alvarez (Simmons-Argandoña’s bandmate in retro salsa powerhouse Bio Ritmo) and Laura Ann Singh harmonize lushly, against a backdrop of acoustic guitar, baby bass and drums – and that organ. The result is both completely retro and original at once, a Sam Fuller film set in San Juan, 1955. These “songs about love and anti-love” are up at the band’s bandcamp site as a name-your-price download (that means free if you’re broke).

Interestingly, the most iconic song here, Silvia Rexach’s Di Corazon is done with piano rather than organ, a stately, spacious version with spare guitar that lets the lyrics’ understated anguish speak for themselves. Rexach was reputedly about 15 or 16 when she wrote this; Alvarez and Singh vividly evoke the pain of a girl alone at night wondering whether anyone will ever care about her. The slinky Farfisa rivulets kick in on another Rexach classic, En Mis Sueños, darkly dreamy but more so musically than lyrically. They follow a brief, gorgeous organ solo by a gently spiky one from the acoustic guitar. Tomate Una Copa has a bouncy insistent “gimme a chance” vibe, with the piano and guitar carrying it, Alvarez handling the lead vocal.

Nuestro Juramento is a creepy organ waltz that evokes another retro latin band, Las Rubias Del Norte – the wounded duet vocals are viscerally intense. The best of the organ tunes is the lusciously, luridly spiraling Alma, with its wary, somewhat surreal guy-vs.girl call-and-response and tango nuevo-tinged melody. They follow that with two piano ballads, the expansive Y Etonces and the brooding, bitterly crescendoing intense title track. They close with Estatua (Te Creo), rich with restrained longing. Get this while it’s still online.

June 9, 2011 Posted by | latin music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Album of the Day 4/14/11

Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Thursday’s album is #656:

Yomo Toro – Música Para El Mundo Entero

A surprisingly low-key but gorgeous and characteristically eclectic studio album from the Puerto Rican Jimi Hendrix, 1982. Playing his cuatro with his signature lush, jangly, watery tone, it almost sounds as if he’s using a twelve-string guitar. His most potent performances have always been live – he’s one of the fastest fret-burners on the planet – but other than his innumerable performances as a sideman with big orchestras, concert recordings by this guy are very hard to find. Stylistically, this one’s all over the map. It opens with the title track, a blazing salsa tune; after that, he offers a joyous, playful guided tour of the entire history of Puerto Rican music in six minutes and forty-seven seconds. The two best tracks here are lush ballads, Virgencita and Alma Llanera. There’s also the jazzy Le Vi Por Primera Vez; the catchy bolero La Cuesta De Josefina; the bouncy dance hit Popurri Sentimental and a salsa gospel tune. Even a Billy Joel cover – which the band manages to elevate a level above pure stench – can’t ruin this. The whole thing is streaming at deezer; here’s a random torrent via bosquesonoro.

April 14, 2011 Posted by | latin music, lists, Music, music, concert, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 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

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

Album of the Day 8/2/10

Every day, we count down the 1000 best albums of all time all the way to #1. Monday’s album is #911:

Sylvia Rexach – 20 Canciones Inolvidables

Sylvia Rexach was sort of the Puerto Rican Edith Piaf, a doomed bolero songwriter who drank herself to death at 39 in 1961. The sadness in her voice is visceral: fifty years later, she still has a cult following among latin music fans. Much of what’s here is just voice and acoustic guitar (she was a fluent player, also adept at piano and saxophone) with hits from the fifties including Alma Adentro (Soul Inside), Di Corazon (Tell Me, Sweetheart), Olas y Arenas (Waves and Sand) and Nave Sin Rumbo (Rudderless Ship). Unlike Piaf, Rexach’s lyrics (she was also a highly regarded poet) employ simple, metaphorically charged imagery; the resignation in her vocals can be chilling. She partied hard, and it doesn’t seem that anyone was particularly surprised that she died so young. Original copies of her singles (she released many, including her biggest early hits, Alma Adentro and Di Corazon, before any of them were put on album) are collectors items. This collection has some filler (a couple of pointless instrumental versions), and obviously the sonics don’t come close to the warmth of the original vinyl. But all that stuff has been out of print for decades, at least stateside. It’s floating around the web if you feel like downloading it.

August 2, 2010 Posted by | latin music, lists, Music, music, concert, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Marta Topferova – Trova

Czech-born, New York-based chanteuse/songwriter Marta Topferova has carved herself out a niche as a first-class avatar of latin music. Her new cd Trova (a Cuban style, though she explores considerably more terrain here) is quite a change from the pensive melancholy that runs throughout much of her previous work. It’s a mix of oldschool latin styles with a Caribbean tinge, like something out of San Juan, 1955, recorded with her band at an old farmhouse outside Prague fresh off a European tour. The album features Topferova on guitar and cuatro along with big band leader Pedro Giraudo on bass, Aaron Halva on tres and accordion, Roland Satterwhite on violin and Neil Ochoa on percussion. It’s got a quiet joy that simmers and bubbles over once in awhile for extra flavor. Frequently, the star of the show here is Satterwhite (formerly with Jenifer Jackson and also Howard Fishman), whose imaginative, casually intense phrasing adds an unexpectedly biting edge to some of the quieter material. As is typical throughout the cd, its unexpected moments are subtle but compelling, as in the case of the infectious opening bomba, Juligan, a nocturnal street scene whose central character, a bum, turns out to be something completely different. And yet the same.

She follows that with an effervescent, percussion-driven dance tune, a stately, delicately pensive tango and a symbolically charged midtempo number rich with chordal jangle and gorgeous acoustic textures. Largo el Camino (The Long Road) winds along on a catchy, swaying four-bar hook and a couple of nice introspective tres solos, the latter closing the song on an optimistic note.

Descarga de la Esperanza (The Hope Jam) is hypnotic, like the Dead gone latin and acoustic. Madrugada (Dawn) is a pretty, sad waltz with a buoyant Satterwhite solo, one of those kind of songs that, thirty years ago, would have had record executives scheming over the prospect of a crossover international hit. Topferova saves her grittiest vocal for the tricky Argentinean changes of Entre a Mi Pago Sin Golpear (Come On Over and Don’t Knock), Satterwhite’s jovial fiddle adding contrast.

The cd winds up with the vividly lyrical La Amapola, inspired by a poppy native to Czech Republic, showcasing Topferova’s seemingly effortless ability to shift between styles; the dusky las Luciernagas (Fireflies) and an old bolero cover usually sung by a male vocalist. Topferova puts her own spin on it, a woman in an arranged marriage displaying quiet defiance. This album has the same kind of rustic quality that spurred the Bachata Roja Legends’ surprise crossover success and could just as easily resonate with anglo as well as latin audiences. Not bad for Czech expat for whom Spanish was a second language. She’s at Barbes on Jan 22 at 10.

January 3, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment