Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

One of the World’s Mightiest Latin Jazz Orchestras Gets Back to Business at Birdland

When a bunch of oligarchs and their puppets in politics tried to take over the world in 2020, musicians were left out in the cold. In the liner notes to his new album Virtual Birdland, pianist Arturo O’Farrill, longtime leader of the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra takes care to mention how people who play music for a living are no less essential than any other workers. Empowered by that knowledge, he kept the band going through a long series of webcasts, possibly the most labor-intensive of all the innumerable online collaborations of the past sixteen months or so. The great news is that the big band’s home base, Birdland, is open again, and the group have resumed the Sunday night residency they were banished from in March of last year. Showtime these days is 7 PM.. If you feel like celebrating, it couldn’t hurt to reserve a spot now since these shows are very likely to sell out. Cover is $20; your best deal is a seat at the bar.

Considering that individual parts on the record – streaming at Spotify – were recorded remotely in innumerable different sonic environments, the fact that it sounds as contiguous as it does reflects the herculean work of the engineers involved.

Big trombone fanfares interweave with lushly swirling reeds over a bubbling Punjabi-inflected groove in the cuisine-inspired opening number, Gulab Jamon. O’Farrill takes a cascading, brightly neoromantic solo with Bam Bam Rodriguez’s bass growling minimalistically behind him while the rhythm straightens into an emphatic clave. Tenor saxophonist Jasper Dutz summons a return to a web of triumphant counterpoint and a devious false ending.

Guest Malika Zarra sings her composition Pouvoir, a slinky, brassy Moroccan-flavored tune with solos from trombonist Mariel Bildstein and conguero Keisel Jimenez. This band have always slayed with Arabic and Jewish themes, underscored by their version of trombonist Rafi Malkiel’s brooding Desert, its uneasily undulating chromatics giving way to a serpentine solo by the composer and then a muted, soulful one from lead trumpeter Seneca Black.

With its nocturnal, Dizzy Gillespie-style suspense and bluster, Larry Willis’ Nightfall makes a great segue, trumpeter Rachel Therrien and tenor saxophonist Ivan Renta cutting loose hauntingly between the orchestra’s chromatic gusts. The bandleader spirals elegantly; Jimenez goes deep down the well as the storm hovers.

Guest guitarist Ghazi Faisal Al-Mulaifi sings his methodical, bittersweet ballad Ana Mashoof, adding a starry solo in tandem with O’Farrill before Alejandro Aviles spins in on soprano sax. Alto saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera soars and weaves through a tightly turbulent take of his Samba For Carmen, echoed by O’Farrill’s trumpeter son Adam.

Alafia, by Letieres Leite – the Brazilian Arturo O’Farrill – gets a jubilant, percussion-fueled workout, part elegantly orchestral candomble theme, part feral frevo brass-band romp with a tantalizingly brief, smoky Larry Bustamante baritone sax solo.

O’Farrill first performed Rafael Solano’s En La Oscuridad with his big band legend father Chico O’Farrill alongside the great tenor saxophonist Mario Rivera, so playing this suave, balmy ballad again with Renta, a Rivera protege, brings the song full circle.

They close the album with a couple of salutes to transgression, something the world is rising to embrace like never before. The epic take of Papo Vazquez’s relentlessly anthemic Cimarron first features calm triumph from trombonist Abdulrahman Amer, Aviles turning up the heat on alto, then percussionist Carly Maldonado fueling a charge out. The final number is a towering, cinematic take of Tito Puente’s Para Los Rumberos: Renta, Malkiel, Maldonado, Jimenez and drummer Vince Cherico all get to cut loose. How beautiful it is that we can hear musicians of this caliber take material like this to the next level onstage again.

And if you’re around the East Village on the 29th, O’Farrill is leading a much smaller group at St. Marks Park at 2nd Ave. and 10th St. at half past noon.

July 25, 2021 Posted by | jazz, latin music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Lush, Lively, Inventive Cuban String Sounds From the Toomai String Quintet

Last night at Symphony Space, the Toomai String Quintet played an irrepressibly dancing album release show for their new one, Cuerdas Cubanas, which would have made Ernesto Lecuona proud. The “Cuban Gershwin,” as bandleader and bassist Andrew Roitstein aptly characterized him, is well represented on the record and likewise in the concert program, a mix of elegantly serpentine themes with the Cuban composer’s signature blend of European classical, flamenco, Romany and indigenous sounds.

Cellist Hamilton Berry grinningly told the crowd that Roitstein’s new arrangements, many of them based on material originally written for piano or orchestra, were pretty awesome, and he wasn’t kidding. Roitstein has an obvious affinity for Lecuona’s work, and his bandmates  – who also include violinists Emilie-Anne Gendron and Alex Fortes and violist Erin Wight – reveled in his nifty exchanges of phrases and contrapuntal voicings.

You might not think that a singer who’s made a career in opera, as Roitstein’s sister Alina has, would necessarily be suited to singing salsa, but she also obviously gravitates toward this music. A magnetic presence in front of the band, swinging her hips and negotiating the lyrics in impressively fluent Spanish, she delivered cheery and frequently coy versions of hits made famous by Celia Cruz, Tito Puente and others.

A slinky, loopy bass and cello interweave set up Gendron’s plaintive vibrato in the night’s lilting, opening instrumental, La Comparsa. True to its title, Zamba Gitana had emphatic Romany riffage and some neat handoffs between the two violinists. The exchanges between band members were even more incisive in the phantasmagorical Gitanerias, which the group began as a real danse macabre.

There were also plenty of lighthearted moments in the set, including but hardly limited to a jaunty santeria dance, an animated thicket of pizzicato in Lecuona’s En Tres Por Cuatro, and the balmy nocturnal ambience of Manuel Ponce’s Plenilunio. There was also an interlude where a small battalion of young string players who’d been workshopping Cuban music with the quintet joined them and added extra ballast to the Israel “Cachao” Lopez hit A Gozar Con Mi Combo. Solos are still a work in progress for these kids, but when they played along with the rest of the band, the music was absolutely seamless.

The quintet encored with Lecuona’s Andalucia, shifting from uneasily acerbic Arabic-flavored chromatics to an indomitable, triumphant sway. It’s hard to think of a more perfect way to close such an eclectically enjoyable show. The Toomai String Quintet have a weekly Saturday 6 PM residency at Barbes coming up this September, where you will undoubtedly get many opportunities to hear a lot of this material.

June 11, 2018 Posted by | classical music, concert, latin music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 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