Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

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.

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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