Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Latin Music Legend Up Close and Personal at Lincoln Center

Tuesday night at the Lincoln Center atrium space just south of 63rd Streeet, an adoring, sold-out crowd got to hear Ruben Blades think on his feet and entertain the house with philosophical insights and some hilarious yarns from a career full of surprises. In a one-on-one discussion with NYU professor Carlos Chirinos, the iconic Panamanian-born salsero was in a characteristically expansive mood. Which makes sense, considering that Blades is one of the greatest lyricists and musical storytellers to emerge in the 20th century.

Blades has a sense of irony as sharp as his name (his grandfather was British; it’s pronounced that way). One of the night’s funniest moments was when Blades recalled how, as a teenage law student in Panama City, he got called in to the dean’s office after being spotted crooning at an after-hours spot. Forced to choose between music and school, he chose…drum roll…school! But after the 1968 coup d’etat there, Blades’ mom – a fine singer in her own right and a major musical influence – sent him packing to New York, to help him “stay out of trouble,” as he put it.

There he reconnected with Fania Records honcho Jerry Masucci, who’d heard Blades jamming one night at Panama City’s lone professsional studio and invited him to record at an unspecified future date. The date almost didn’t happen; when it did, Blades revealed with the hint of a sardonic grin, he didn’t consider it a success – neither the album cover nor the tracks on it have stood the test of time, he averred. Then the opening number played over the atrium’s PA, Blades intoning a disclaimer right from the first few bars: “Any resemblance to any persons living or dead is purely coincidental.” As usual, Blades was looking to the future, in this case, to explaining away this gangster tale as a work of fiction so as to sidestep the attentions of the authoritarian regime in power at home.

Blades relished recounting how many influential DJs thought that his monster hit Pedro Navaja was destined for commercial failure. But more than taking pride in how the over-seven-minute song paved the way for longer songs on latin radio – just as Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone had helped transform the AM rock format – Blades recounted how it was arguably the first salsa hit to feature a heroine who kills in self-defense rather than being cast as villain or victim. Blades also couldn’t resist getting a dig or two in at the critics who assailed arranger Luis Ortiz – “who’d only written charts for about two thousand songs,” Blades recalled – for taking Blades’ advice to break the clave and bring down the rhythm in a crucial moment of suspense.

And in the context of 2017, it was something of a shock to hear how relatively freely Blades was given the green light to record his pioneering song cycle Buscando America, which is esssentially an album-length short story. That a large record conglomerate would allow one of their top-selling artists to have any creative control at all, let alone put out a defiantly populist avant garde suite without a hit single was almost as much of a pipe dream in 1984 as it would be now. Again, Blades had the last word over the critics and the naysayers.

Otherwise, Blades momentarily touched on but didn’t go into much detail about his acting – a side gig he fell into, more or less, which snowballed from there. He also didn’t expand on his political work, including his  Panamanian Presidential campaign or his job as Minister of Tourism there, which put his music on ice for six years. What is the future for latin music? Chirinos wanted to know. Bright, and cross-pollinated, was Blades’ answer. He’s got a grand total of six separate albums currently in the works, as well as a theatre piece and another possible run at politics on his home turf. Now well into his sixties, Blades hardly looks the part of an eminence grise: there’s plenty of fight left in him.

This evening was part of a new collaboration between Lincoln Center and the NYU Music and Social Change Lab, launched last year.

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January 28, 2017 Posted by | latin music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Gregorio Uribe Big Band Air Out Their Mighty, Slinky Cumbia Sounds at Two Shows This Coming Week

The Gregorio Uribe Big Band are one of those groups whose music is so fun that it transcends category. Is it cumbia? Big band jazz? Salsa? It’s a little of all that, and although it’s a sound that draws on a lot of traditions from south of the border, it’s something that probably only could have happened in New York. For more than three years, the mighty sixteen-piece ensemble has held a monthly residency at Zinc Bar. They’ve also got two enticing upcoming shows: one at Winter Jazzfest, on their regular home turf at twenty minutes before midnight on Friday, January 15 (you’ll need a festival pass for that), and also at about 10:30 PM on January 18 as part of this year’s South American Music Festival at Drom. That lineup, in particular, is pretty amazing, starting at 7:30 PM with magically eclectic singer (and member of Sara Serpa’s dreamy Mycale project) Sofía Rei, slashingly eclectic Pan-American guitarist Juancho Herrera and band, singer Sofía Tosello & innovative percussionist Franco Pinna’s hypnotic new folk-trance duo Chuño, then Uribe, then the psychedelic, surfy, vallenato-influenced art-rock groovemeisters Los Crema Paraiso and extrovert percussionist Cyro Baptista’s group at the top of the bill sometime in the wee hours. Advance tix are $20.

Frontman Uribe leads the group from behind his accordion, and sings – it’s hard to think of another large ensemble in New York fronted by an accordionist. Those textures add both playfulness and plaintiveness to Uribe’s vibrant, machinegunning charts. The group’s debut album, Cumbia Universal – streaming at Sondcloud – opens with Yo Vengo (Here I Come), with its mighty polyrhythmic pulse between trombones and trumpets, all sorts of neat counterpoint, and Uribe’s accordion teasing the brass to come back at him. They take it doublespeed at the end.  ¿Qué Vamos a Hacer Con Este Amor? (What Are We Going to Do with This Love?) is a funny salsa-jazz number spiced with dancing exchanges of horn voicings, a duet between Uribe and chanteuse Solange Pratt. She has lot of fun teasing him in his role as a chill pro, trying to resist her temptations.

El Avispao (The Cheater) isn’t about infidelity – it’s a bouncily sarcastic commentary on the corruption that plagues Latin America, with a sardonic tv-announcer cameo and faux fanfares from the brass. The intro to Goza Cada Dia (Enjoy Yourself) has one of the most gorgeous horn charts in years, expanding into individual voices as it goes along: there are echoes of Memphis soul, Afro-Cuban jazz and classic 70s roots reggae, but ultimately this is Uribe’s triumph. Ruben Blades duets with the bandleader on the album’s title track, a jubilant mashup of Caribbean and Pacific coastal cumbia, with a dixieland-tinged solo from Linus Wynsch’s clarinet and a more wryly gruff one from baritone saxophonist Carl Maraghi.

¿Por Qué Se Ira Mi Niño? portrays the anguish of losing a child – Uribe’s native Colombia has a higher infant mortality rate than this country, perhaps three times worse. Matt McDonald’s brooding trombone underscores the sadness of the vocals on the intro, then the band takes it toward salsa noir territory. The soca-flavored Caribe Contigo offers upbeat contrast, anchored by stormy brass and capped off with sailing clarinet. Welcome to La Capital, a bustling Bogota street scene, brings to mind the psychedelic lowrider soul of early 70s War, Ignacio Hernandez’ guitar sparkling amid the endless handoffs among the horns.

The cumbia cover of the Beatles’ Come Together is just plain hilarious – and the way the original vocal line gets shifted to the brass isn’t even the funniest part. The album winds up with the unexpectedly bristling, hi-de-ho noir cumbia jazz of  Ya Comenzó La Fiesta (The Party Starts Here). Crank this in your earphones as you try to multitask, but expect people to be looking at you because you won’t be able to sit still.

January 10, 2016 Posted by | jazz, 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

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