Jazz With An Accent: A Conversation with Sammy Figueroa

October 23, 2014

By Fernando Gonzalez

Miami, Florida       

Puerto Rican percussionist Sammy Figueroa is a versatile, resourceful player whose extraordinary career includes performing, recording and touring with a dizzying list of jazz, pop and rock stars and groups, including trumpeter Miles Davis, saxophonist Sonny Rollins (his current employer) and the Brecker Brothers but also David Bowie, David Lee Roth, Ruben Blades, Annie Lennox and Mariah Carey.

Sammy Figueroa 2In 2001, Figueroa quietly settled in South Florida. He organized a band, when in town he played at places such the defunct Van Dyke on Lincoln Rd. in Miami Beach and recorded three albums that garnered him two Grammy nominations. He now also has his own “The Sammy Figueroa Show” every Monday morning on Miami’s WDNA 88.9 FM.  Unassuming and with a puckish sense of humor, Figueroa is also an irrepressible storyteller. He doesn’t just answer questions, once he gets on a roll he playacts entire scenes, bringing to life characters and situations with the timing of a comedian.

Here is a (very) abridged version of a conversation at his Miami Beach place in which he discusses his beginnings in music as a salsa singer, Miles, Dali and his elephant and his latest project, Talisman, a set of original music recorded in Sao Paulo, Brazil with Brazilian singer Glaucia Nasser and a terrific band featuring guitarist Chico Pinheiro, pianist Bianca Gismonti and young pandeiro phenom Bernando Aguiar.

Fernando Gonzalez: You have spoken about first hearing jazz when you were 15. What were the circumstances?

Sammy Figueroa: Very simple: I lived an isolated life, I didn’t go out, I didn’t play with other kids, I had a big afro, was very skinny and they used to kick my ass at school. So I stayed home — and discovered jazz. The first record was Clare Fischer and his big band, and I thought it was amazing. Then I heard Sam Cooke, Herbie Hancock — and then I heard Miles and I thought “Oh yeah, I’m in.”
Any little money I made doing some horrible gig, I’d spend it on records. I was living with my mom, I wasn’t paying rent. So I locked myself in the room and listen to this stuff until three in the morning. My mother would bang on the door for me to go to bed. After listening to Clare Fischer, Herbie, Chick, all those guys, when The Beatles came out with “I Want To Hold Your Hand” it wasn’t that impressive.

FG: You were playing percussion at the time?

No, I wasn’t playing at all. I was singing with a quartet. I was doing gigs as a singer in hotels. And then Bobby Valentin, the great salsa bass player, heard me and said “ You sing pretty good. Do you ever sing salsa?’ “Nah, Not really.” “Why don’t you audition for me next week?” So I went home and listened to Joe Cuba and started imitating Cheo Feliciano and went back to Bobby and told him “ OK, I got it.” So he auditioned me. So the band starts playing, I start improvising and he goes “Damn, you are really good!” “Really?” So I joined the band and for five years I was the lead singer for Bobby Valentin. I didn’t play percussion, I was a salsa singer.
The congas came later. While I was with Bobby, Fania [the Motown of salsa] offered me a contract — and my mother went completely crazy. She said “What!? You are not going to do what your father did and blah, blah, blah.” My father was a singer and had died an alcoholic. And I’m glad she did stop me because then I turned to percussion. Nobody would teach me so I started practicing with a broken conga that my neighbor had. I had to learn by myself, invent my own exercises. But I did a little gig with Perico Ortiz, the great trumpeter and arranger, and … I became Perico’s percussionist for four years. He got me into the instrumental thing.

FG: You’ve worked with so many people, pick three artists you liked to work with the most.

On the road I loved working with the Brecker Brothers. I liked working with Miles. It was so much fun. It was so unpredictable. He was out of his mind — but that was what made it interesting to me, and we became very close friends. And, of course, I love Sonny Rollins. He’s unpredictable. I should also mention David Bowie and [Brazilian pianist]Tania Maria. Tania took me places that never, in my wildest dreams I thought I would go.

FG: Can you share a story with Miles Davis?

We could spend days on Miles — he lived in my apartment for almost a year and also almost burned it down cooking, but let me just tell you how we met.
I didn’t know Miles. I only knew him by his records. By the time I joined Miles [in 1980] I was a household name in New York. I had already done 50-something records and I was a well-known studio guy.
So I was in my little apartment in New York, with my then wife, I was already in bed, I had came back from a session late and my phone rings at about 2:15 in the morning. I pick it up and I hear (imitating Miles’s rasp) “Hey man, what’s happenin’ motherf#@^&*” and I go “Click” and hang up. Who calls at that time? I thought he was [trumpeter] Lew Soloff my closest friend. He would be the one to do a stupid thing like that. Then the phone rings again. “Thank you for hanging up mother%$#” and I go “Who is this?!” “It’s Miles Davis” And I say , “Oh yeah, sure, Miles Davis,” and hung up. And then the phone rings again and I hear this other voice [formal] “Is this Sammy Figueroa? This is [Miles’ producer] Teo Macero.” Now my eyes are wide open … “You just hang up on Miles — twice. I’ll take care of him. But if you want the gig get your ass over here. Now!” … So I took a cab to the old Columbia Records studios and I walked in and saw this really black guy, I mean blacker than coal. He’s seating in a chair just looking at me, and I say “Miles, I’m so sorry I didn’t know” and without saying a word, he got up and punched me in the stomach! He punched me so hard that I fell on the floor. I couldn’t breathe. And I’m thinking “I got up at 2:30 in the morning to get punched in the stomach??” So I just reacted and I hit him. I hit him so hard he fell over the piano and I broke his lip. I saw this little thing falling, going over the piano like a crow. And Teo comes out the booth: “What the fuck happened here??!!” I’m looking at Miles and apologizing “I’m sorry Miles,” and he looks at the blood from his lip and says “”Damn, that’s a good right hook mother#@^%” And that was that.

FG: And then there is wah wah pedal incident …

Oh yes, the wah wha pedal. He was going ‘wah wah wah’ with the trumpet and I hated it.  Then Miles has to leave the room and I’m looking at the thing, looking and looking, and Marcus [Miller] looks at me and says “Leave it alone Sammy.” But I was sick of it so I pulled it out to unplug it and because it was so old it broke and the springs came out — so I hid it, I threw it awy. So Miles comes back after 20 minutes and asks “Where’s the wah wah pedal?” and immediately looks at me ”Sammy!” “What are you looking at me for?” And he says “Who else would do such a crazy thing like that. These mother f@#% are nice. You are crazy.” And this is all happening in that first night.
He picked the trumpet and started playing. He didn’t sound good. It wasn’t until 5 in the morning that we kept one track where he sounded really good. That was ‘Man With The Horn.’ The rest of the album we did it over the next four days.

FG: Did you eventually establish a good relationship with Miles?

The best . He called me at my house 15, 20 times a day. Teo [Macero, his producer] would say “Hey I took care of him for 30 years, now it’s your turn. Bam.”
He became a dear friend. He lived in my apartment for about a year.

FG: Any one particular moment you recall?

There was this time when Miles was talking on the phone at the house and he goes “Yeah …yeah … yeah … yeah,” and I’m looking at him like “Who is that?” And he looks at me and shrugs so after 20 minute she hangs up. “Who the fuck was that?” He goes “It’s that mother#@^ Salvador Dali. He calls me every day and I don’t know what he’s saying.” And I go “Wait, that was Salvador Dali?.” That was life with Miles.
Miles painted and Salvador loved him and called him every day. Salvador was crazier than Miles. Crazier. A few weeks later we played Barcelona and he came to the show. … He ended up inviting me to his house and I ended up staying there for the day. The following day he had the opening of an exhibit and [his wife] Gala spent the whole time looking for an elephant, calling every zoo, the circus. And I´m seated there watching all this and thinking “These guys are nuts.’”
They did find the elephant, by the way. So for the opening Dali arrived riding the elephant. He made an incredible entrance. He was the king of self-promoters.

FG: You became a bandleader late in your career. What did you take from the different bandleaders you have worked with?

When I moved to Miami, actually [producer, friend and long time collaborator] Rachel Faro, jazz booker Don Wilner and [jazz producer] Ron Weber put a band together for me and I did my very first gig ever as a leader at the Hollywood Jazz Festival.
Rachel Faro: “It was funny because I had to force him to put his congas center stage,” she says.
Sammy Figueroa: It wasn’t fear, I was used to being onstage it’s just that I was so used to be in the background.
As for leading a group, my way out has always been joking around and having fun. I make them laugh, I make them comfortable  they don’t want to go anywhere. But when you deal with difficult guys, I wasn’t really a leader I was too scared, really. A leader is strong and will fire you in a minute. Like Miles. I didn’t have that.

FG: How did you approach your work in Talisman? This is not a straight up Brazilian record. The grooves are Brazilian, obviously, but one can also hear Puerto Rican bomba, Afro-Uruguayan candombe, mambo rhythms even African grooves. What was the plan?

What I played in Talisman is part Brazilian and part Latin because I didn’t want to interfere with what they guys were doing . We had with us [pandeiro player] Bernardo Aguiar and he’s wonderful. So I wanted the guys to play the authentic stuff and I’d play bomba and plena or a really fast mambos for example — and it worked perfectly. If I had played Brazilian conga, which now I know how to play, it would’ve been too Brazilian. Then it wouldn’t have anything to do with what I wanted to do which was to bring the two approaches together. When you are mixing different styles you have to know where and when to put them. Is like a chef. If you put too much condiment you overpower the natural flavor of the food. You need to put the right amount and keep it simple.

EPK Sammy Figueroa and Glaucia Nasser

 


Brian Arsenault Takes On, or rather, Treasures: Peggy Lee

October 12, 2014

 By Brian Arsenault

Elton John had Marilyn Monroe but I had Peggy Lee. Miss Peggy Lee, pardon. No, I didn’t write a song for her but she did a song for me. Not really for me but maybe . . .

Peggy Lee at mic gesturesI was 11 or 12 when I first heard “Fever” in 1959 and it gave me a whole new, shall I say, feeling about girls. I was beginning to notice they were different in more things than hair and giggles but “Fever” was a revelation, even if I wasn’t quite sure yet what was being revealed.

As Don Heckman has written, she had so many strengths as a singer: deep sensuality, phrasing at a level only achieved by a handful of greats like Francis Albert and Mr. Bennett, and also like them, the ability to find the emotional center of the song.

An example of another artist finding the emotional center of a song: I was only recently reminded that Sinatra didn’t sing “Luck Be a Lady” in the film version of Guys and Dolls even though he was in it. (So was Brando, sheesh) Yet the song became a signature for Frank who showed it wasn’t really about shooting craps but seeking love. He found the center.

Peggy made “Fever” her own even though a guy named Little Willie John had an r&b hit with it that even crossed over to the pop charts. Still it’s like it was written for her. The song’s been recorded by who knows how many since Peggy, by performers as varied as Madonna and Beyonce, even Elvis. But does anyone doubt its Peg’s song.

Backed by just drum and bass, she just kills it with that deep voice you might have wished your girlfried had, with her funny fake Shakesperean take on the Romeo and Juliet verse, with a restrained eroticism that is almost palpable.

Miss Peggy Lee was singing professionally as an early teen. She fled a wicked stepmother and started by singing on a radio station literally for food. By 17 she was established as a radio singer. By 20 she was fronting the Benny Goodman band. At 21, she wrote “What More Can a Woman Do?” recorded by Sarah Vaughan with Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker.

If I put exclamation points at the end of each sentence in the previous paragraph it would not have been misplaced punctuation. And I almost never use exclamation points. She was just getting started, one of the few survivors of the big band era whose career flourished into the 1950s and 60s and beyond.
Her early 60s appearance at the Basin Street East, mercifully preserved on a great album, just dazzles with its array of songs: “Day In -Day Out,” “The Second Time Around,” “Moments Like This,” “Them There Eyes,” and of course “Fever.” Hear her versions on the album and you don’t need any others. Consider also the limitations of live recordings, any recordings, in 1961 compared to today’s digital, if rather frozen, age.

If you can get a vinyl copy you will know why. On the cover, Peggy smiles to the side, the dress low on her shoulders, an earring dangles. Simply dazzling. And then you listen and dazzling isn’t enough to say.
As an aside, I also love the message on the back of the album below the liner notes:
“This monophonic microgroove recording is playable on Monophonic and Stereo phonographs. It cannot become obsolete. (Italics mine).” Damn right.

Her gifts were enormous. She was a songwriter for the Disney animated film Lady and the Tramp, a cartoon feature done with a loveliness unknown today. She also did four of the voices, from the lovely Lady to those nasty Siamese cats. I have never been able to warm up to a Siamese since and I kinda like cats.

Peggy also wrote songs with luminaries like Duke Ellington. She wrote TV scripts. She hosted variety shows. She acted in movies. She wrote poetry.

Her last big hit was in 1970 with “Is That All There Is?” Could there possibly be another hit song ever with lyrics taken from a Thomas Mann story? The band on the song was conducted by Randy Newman. Anyone else’s singing career span from Goodman to Newman?

She was in great demand right into the 1980s when failing health finally took its toll. She’d had a near fatal fall in Vegas some years before and came near death again with heart disease and surgery.
Yet she carried on into the 90s when she even performed a few times in a wheelchair. Now that could break your heart, eh?

Miss Peggy Lee died in 2002 having risen above enormous life challenges and changes in popular music tastes over so many decades. But if she’d only ever done “Fever” she’d be great to me.


Brian Arsenault Takes on Buddy Holly

September 9, 2014

Not Fade Away
The Music of Buddy Holly

by Brian Arsenault

That ass Gene Simmons saying the other day that rock was dead got me to thinking about living through its whole lifetime. Not that Simmons was right. Hell, he wouldn’t know, coming out of a band so devoid of musicality they had to dress like clowns. Typecasting.

Then today, not consciously thinking about the life and death of Rock, I put on Buddy Holly’s Down The Line – Rarities and it was all there.

Rock. All of it.

Buddy Holly

Buddy Holly

It’s not an accident that during the British reinvigoration of rock there was a band called The Hollies. Graham Nash was in it. Before there were Beatles there were Crickets. “Not Fade Away” was a Buddy hit before the Stones and the Dead were around.

All there. The pain and pleasures of early love, first discoveries, teens dancing in the dark. It’s easy to be scornful of such themes but in truth what is more shape shifting for a lifetime than the first discovery of the other sex. (“Fool’s Paradise,” “Love’s Made a Fool of You,” “Oh Boy”) Or the same sex for that matter. Hell, how hard is that? We’re only beginning to recognize the early pain of that sexual urge.

Before acid and gurus, love angst was the theme of the Beatles. A theme that made them bigger than anyone. Ever. And underneath even the White Album, the Buddy Holly gentle, jesting, sensitive feelings never went away nor should they have. Obla Di, Obla Da . . .

It was all there. Acoustic guitar chords played fast, faster and then electric. Sometimes both in the same song.
It was all there. An actual bass lead in “slow version #1″ of “Slippin and a Slidin’.” Long before The Ox and Jack Bruce.
It was all there. Buddy stopping to tell the drummer to push it, push it. An early organ lead when Doors were only something to open or shut.

It was all there. Watch Keith Richards on stage now and he’s playing those neat little rhythm riffs. Just without the horned rim glasses though he could probably use some.

Buddy’s great fame was a little before even my time. The day the music died I was only just tuning in to the music of my life. Digging his stuff.

A plane crash. Over and again a goddamn plane crash. The Big Bopper and La Bamba went down with him. They were doing a tour of high school sock hops. Imagine.

Plane crashes. Left us wounded in Lynrd Skynrd. Bereft of that little guitar monster from Texas. Damn plane crashes. Do like Willy and drive to the gigs. You can smoke ‘em easier.

Chuck Berry invented the form. Elvis made it America’s music. But Buddy led the way. From country and bop, from blues and r&b. All you have to do is listen to an album like Rarities and know that he listened to all of it. And then he gave us all of it. Rock ‘n Roll.

Unfortunately Gene Simmons lives in the same world, just not the same musical universe. So now he owns a fake football team. Figures.


Jazz With An Accent: Drummin’ Back Out Into the World — CDs by Arturo O’Farrill and Ginger Baker

August 6, 2014

By Fernando Gonzalez

Arturo O’Farrill & The Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra

The Offense of the Drum (Motema)

Maestro Mario Bauzá — trumpeter, saxophonist and music director of Machito and His Afro- Cubans, direct link between Dizzy Gillespie and Chano Pozo and a key figure in blending jazz and Afro-Cuban rhythms — scoffed at the label Latin Jazz.

“What they call Latin jazz is not Latin jazz. That’s Afro-Cuban jazz,” he would say in his inimitable growl. It wasn’t just that “Latin jazz” blurred the Afro-Cuban contribution. It was also that, for him, Latin jazz suggested a different, more varied mix — incorporating Argentine tangos, Colombian cumbias, Venezuelan joropos or Puerto Rican bomba y plena.  He would then name artists such as Paquito D’Rivera, Gato Barbieri or Jorge Dalto as worthy
practitioners.

It was the 1980s and it was a short roll call.  Today, he would’ve had a much longer and broader list.

But Bauzá would have been specially proud of the work of pianist and bandleader Arturo O’Farrill, the son of his friend and collaborator, the great Cuban arranger and bandleader Chico O ́Farrill.

For 12 years, sometimes seemingly hidden in plain view, Arturo O ́Farrill has carried on an extraordinary effort, not only organizing and keeping alive an 18-piece big band but doing so while also expanding the vocabulary of Afro-Cuban jazz into a truly Pan-Latin Latin jazz.  By now, the book of the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra (ALJO) includes not only some of the great standards of Afro-Cuban jazz but also pieces blending in tangos, choros and Peruvian festejos.  In The Offense of The Drum, O ́Farrill both takes it further out and brings it all home.  With the drums as the foundational center of the music, the ALJO connects diverse traditions  creatively but also rather organically.

So a tribute to the shared spirits and grooves in Havana and New Orleans, a musical dialogue  in “On The Corner of Malecón and Bourbon,” flows into a sly Colombian porro groove and  allusions to Colombian papayera band (a type of brass street band) on “Mercado en Domingo.”  But exploring the groove doesn’t preclude a reflective “Gonossiene 3 (Tientos),” which  explodes Erik Satie’s music Arabic elements with a flamenco perspective.

And O’Farrill is neither afraid of collaborations — such as those with pianist Vijay Iyer (the odd  metered “The Mad Hatter”) and DJ Logic (“They Came” which also explores spoken poetry)  — nor having a good time, as with the eminently danceable salsa track, “Alma Vacía,” or the  classic “Iko Iko” – featuring alto saxophonist Donald Harrison, a Big Chief Mardi Gras Indian –  reinvented here as a joyous, bouncing Cuban/New Orleans party groove.

Throughout, the arranging is imaginative, exploring the character of the music and the  instrumental possibilities of the band, while the soloing (especially by O’Farrill and Iyer on  piano, Rafi Malkiel, euphonium and Harrison on sax) is consistently smart and purposeful.  Creative, swinging and open to the world, The Offense of The Drum is Latin jazz at its best.

Offense of the Drum Electronic Press Kit

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Ginger Baker

Why? (Motema)

While lasting only two years, 1966 – 1968, the British trio Cream had an oversized impact in  modern popular music. At different times, Cream has been claimed as ancestor and inspiration  by rock musicians of nearly all stripes, from fusion to heavy metal.

But jazz has more than a fair claim to their legacy too. In fact, one doesn’t need to go back to  their epic version of Skip James’ “I’m So Glad,” in the group’s final Goodbye, to connect the  dots between the jazz tradition and their instrumental virtuosity, their approach to improvisation  and open-ended treatment of the blues. Set aside the pop-rock imagery for a second and think of, say, a saxophone playing the guitar lines and you are closer to an avant-jazz trio than a rock band.

That shouldn’t be a surprise. The two guys working the engine room of Cream, bassist  Jack Bruce and drummer Ginger Baker, were educated in, and fans of, jazz. Guitarist Eric Clapton was a different story — and his post-Cream, MOR career is evidence enough. In his autobiography, Bruce seems to suggest that two-thirds of Cream thought of it as a jazz trio adding, jokingly one would hope, that they just wouldn’t tell Clapton about it.

With his new album Why?, his first in 16 years, Baker, 75, seems to be closing the circle, returning once again, in one gesture, to his old loves — jazz (including two appealing trio records in the 90s with Bill Frisell and Charlie Haden), African music and, essentially, the trio format (replacing the guitar with a horn and in fact playing without a chordal instrument this time).

Baker’s band these days, Jazz Confusion, features Pee Wee Ellis on sax, Alec Dankworth, bass and Abass Dodoo, percussion, and offers the drummer a smart, strong, no-frills vehicle.  The repertoire in Why? also suggests a bringing-it-all-home feel.

It’s comprised mainly of Baker’s originals, including “Ain Temouchant,” recorded with Frisell and Haden on Going Back Home (1994); “Cyril Davis,” (sic) a tribute to the British harmonica blues player Cyril Davies, and trumpeter Ron Miles’ “Ginger Spice,” both first recorded on Baker’s Coward of the County (1998); and the title track, a meditation on his life and work including a tip of the hat to the late bandleader Graham Bond.

The set also includes “Aiko Biaye,” an update of a Nigerian song Baker recorded in 1970 with Air Force, his short-lived sui generis big band; Ellis’ “Twelve and More Blues,” and a couple of jazz standards, Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints” and the irresistible “St. Thomas,” by Sonny Rollins.  Throughout, Ellis is an economic and tightly focused improviser, even as he takes flight on  tracks such as “St Thomas” and his own “Twelve and More,” remade here with a post-bop
swing. Dankworth is solid and fluid throughout, anchoring the group and providing measured, eloquent soloing.

Baker drives the music forward with his distinct drive and African-tinged tom-tom and hi-hat sound. There it might not be in his playing the relentless, maniacal intensity of his heyday (how could there be?) but Baker’s craftiness and musicality more than makes up for what he might lack at this point in energy. In Why? Baker embraces his past — but don’t expect a warm-and fuzzy nostalgia trip. To quote the title of the terrific Jay Bulger 2012 documentary about him, Beware of Mr. Baker. Yep. And that’s a good thing.

Beware of Mr. Baker

To read more posts, reviews and essays by Fernando Gonzalez click HERE


Jazz With An Accent: CDs by The Dino Saluzzi Group, Carlos Franzetti and Ruben Blades

July 8, 2014

By Fernando Gonzalez

The Dino Saluzzi Group

El Valle de la Infancia (ECM)

The bandoneón, a button squeezebox, might have been born in Germany as a poor man’s harmonium for religious services, but found its calling, and reached global recognition, in tango, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, half a world away. But bandoneonist Dino Saluzzi was born in a dusty small town in Salta, in Argentina’s Northwest, not the big city; and he first heard the bandoneón in folk music not tango. Naturally, and especially early in his career, in the late 60s’early 70s, Saluzzi brought the instrument to his folk music projects. And even as he later earned his tango credentials playing in classic tango orchestras in Buenos Aires, his approach to the bandoneón has always had a distinct, personal accent.

In his own music, Saluzzi has long since developed a style in which he has blurred the lines between European classical music and jazz — with a tango and folk tinge.

Dino Saluzzi CD InfancyOn El Valle de la Infancia (The Valley of My Childhood), Saluzzi, 79, comes full circle, taking stock on his musical history through the filter of the styles that have since marked him.

As it probably couldn’t have been otherwise, El Valle de la Infancia is a family affair. His sextet includes his brother Félix on sax, his son José María on guitar and his nephew Matías on bass. (Nicolás “Colacho” Brizuela, guitar; and Quintino Cinalli, drums and percussion complete the group.)

Both as a composer and improviser, Saluzzi has a particular way of setting and telling his stories. He establishes the mood with a few bold strokes, and then, more often than not, lets the themes emerge, digressing unhurriedly, adding a point here, a change-of-pace detail there as the tale unfolds.

“La Polvareda” wanders off from a near religious mood into a festive folk tune and out again. “A Mi Padre y a Mi Hijo” turns unexpectedly into a modern tango that suggests a salute to Astor Piazzolla before dissolving and reappearing as an old-style milonga. The music is not necessarily thru-composed but, for the most part eschews the standard forms. In fact, except for four of the 16 tracks, Saluzzi sets the program as a collection of suites. The connecting thread might not always sound obvious at first listening. In “Pueblo” the three pieces are each from a different composer — and he is none of them. And Saluzzi not only invokes certain traditional folk rhythms (such as in “Charqui” which draws from the folk music of Argentina’s Northwest) but also includes songs by master folk composers such as Atahualpa Yupanqui and Ariel Ramirez.

El Valle de la Infancia suggests the work of a master in winter, still looking ahead as he glances back.

Carlos Franzetti

In The Key of Tango (Sunnyside)

Argentine-born pianist, composer and arranger Carlos Franzetti’s career defies easy labels. He has recorded jazz, tango and pop, has written chamber and symphonic music, operas and film scores, collaborated with jazz musicians, pop artists and rockers. Two recent projects, In The Key of Tango and Panamanian singer and songwriter Rubén Blades´Tangos, brings him back to his musical roots and the results are impressive.

Carlos Franzettk Key of TangoOn In The Key of Tango, a solo piano outing, Franzetti revisits a repertory of classics, including Carlos Gardel’s “Soledad,” Virgilio Expósito’s “Naranjo en Flor” and Astor Piazzolla’s “Adiós Nonino,” as well as his own “Tango Fatal,” the title piece form his 2000 ballet.

It might sound like a simple, even natural task. But being bilingual means, inevitably, to lose some of the turns, nuances and accents of the original language. That, remarkably, is not the case here.

Old school jazz players talk about the need to know the lyrics to properly play and improvise over a song. On In The Key of Tango one can almost hear Franzetti singing along, coming to the precise pause, adding a baroque touch of flair, playing on the drama of certain phrase, speeding up and slowing down like a good club dancer. And he brings to his interpretations not only his substantial technique as a player but an arranger´s ear — now staying simple and direct, now being melodramatic, now suggesting orchestral accents (Orquesta típica accents) as needed.

In The Key of Tango is not only a terrific addition to Franzetti´s discography but it makes for a smart entry point to the classic tango repertoire.

Ruben Blades

Tangos (Sunnyside)

Ruben Bades TangosRecorded in Buenos Aires and New Jersey and featuring the great bandoneón master Leopoldo Federico and his orchestra, a United States-based sextet and The City of Prague Symphony Orchestra, Rubén Blades´ Tangos is a very different tango project.

Here the repertoire is comprised  by Blades´s salsa classics such as “Paula C,” “Pablo Pueblo,” and “Pedro Najava,” and the challenge, for both, singer and arranger, was to re-create them as tangos.

Set with a jeweler’s touch by Franzetti’s arranging, Blades’ singing, for the most part, works. No, he doesn’t have a tango voice nor the phrasing. But, bringing to bear his experience as an actor, Blades sings with flair, trusts the words (and why not? He is one of the prime storytellers in Afro-Caribbean music) and doles out the drama judiciously.

For the most part, Franzetti sets the songs in a neo traditional tango orchestra style and it works — and his re-imagining “Pedro Navaja” and “Adán García” as sui-generi milongas works particularly well.
Probably not for tango purists, but a contribution to the genre nonetheless.

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To read more posts from Fernando Gonzalez and “Jazz With An Accent” click HERE.

 


CD Review of the Day: Royal Southern Brotherhood’s “heartsoulblood”

June 23, 2014

Royal Southern Brotherhood

heartsoulblood (Ruf Records)

By Brian Arsenault

What the so-called blues “purists” don’t understand is called out on critic John Sinclair’s liner notes to the superb heartsoulblood recently released by Royal Southern Brotherhood.

To wit: “Here Cyril Neville points out (on the album’s second track) that ‘rock & roll is the child of rhythm & blues’.” I would add that r&b is blues speeded up, horned up and electrified. SInclair goes on to say that “blues rock is in turn the child of rock & roll, born and bred in the nasty bars and roadhouses of the South and transplanted into the imaginations of a bunch of teen-age blues lovers in Great Britain who took their version to the top of the international pop music charts.”

Exactly right and the shitheads who think that listening to anything other than BB King and dead Delta bluesmen, great as they are, is some securlar sin against “da blues” have cut themselves off from some very great music for the past half century.

Royal Southern Brotherhood continue and enhance that march through rock and blues (and funk and soul and rockabilly) generations.

Royal Southern Brotherhood band

Royal Southern Brotherhood band

Generations are part of the picture here. The band includes Devon Allman, son of Gregg and nephew of Duane, as well as fourth Neville Brother, Cyril. Sterling guitarist and vocalist Mike Zito and keepin the beat rhythm section bassist Charlie Wooton and drummer Yonrico Scott round things out and deepen the sound.

I don’t always know who’s singing or playing guitar on each track and in some ways I don’t want to know. It’s been a while since I’ve heard a band where, as the cliche goes, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

I feel rather like Red in The Shawshank Redemption who doesn’t want to know what “the two Italian ladies” singing opera on the record pumped through the prison speakers are saying; he just wants to continue the feeling he gets just to hear them.

“Rock And Roll” does just that just fine. “Groove On” brings memories of Duane and Clapton on maybe the best rock album ever, Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs. “Callous” (on my soul) may be an anthem for the dark side of our times or simply the hurt from lost love.

“She’s My Lady” would have been called Soul if sung by The Temptations or, dare I say it, one of the older Nevilles. It would be a summer hit if there were such things on AM radio, or any radio any more. “Let’s Ride” has echoes of the Allman Brothers understandably but also the Chambers Brothers, just as understandably. And on and on throughout the album. Quality.

South haters — says this far New England Yankee — who think everything in the South is racism and narrow mindedness should note that this is a mixed race band. Interesting isn’t it that such seems to happen more often with bands based in the south than in the north? Those advocates of voting rights laws — but only for southern states — should recall all those musical cross currents in that part of the country from blues to rockabilly, from Buddy Holly to New Orleans funk and yes, dammit, to Elvis before the star machine got ahold of him. Currents that enriched the musical life of the whole nation.

A final cultural note: The album closes with a hippie-like anthem, “Love and Peace.” Nice touch.

The only lyric: “Love and Peace will heal the world.” Of course the eternal question is how do we get there? Music? We used to think so. Dare we again? Maybe the young can take us where the old could not.

But forget such musings if you wish. This is music I can listen to every day like my old Stones’ albums and that’s the best I can say about any collection.

* * * * * * * *

To read more posts, reviews and columns by Brian Arsenault click HERE.

 


Film Review: B.B. King “The Life Of Riley”

May 21, 2014

By Devon Wendell

There have been countless films made about the blues and about B.B. King. A large percentage of these films merely focus on how King (Born Riley B. King on September 16th, 1925, between Itta Bena and Indianola Mississippi) inspired a plethora of overdriven, unoriginal rock guitarists from the ‘60s and ‘70s. Very few have focused on the validity of the man’s music in its own right and the bleak conditions that helped to create the blues.

B.B. King and Lucille

B.B. King and Lucille

Director John Brewer has successfully captured the heart and soul of B.B. King the man and the musician in his new documentary The Life Of Riley (released in select theaters throughout the US on May 21st, VOD on June 1st, and on DVD and blue ray on June 17th.) The film is warmly narrated by fellow Mississippi native and blues lover Morgan Freeman.

Although we hear from dozens of King’s famous admirers and colleagues such as Buddy Guy, Eric Clapton, Bonnie Raitt, Carlos Santana, John Lennon, Joe Bonamassa, Paul Rodgers, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Bill Cosby, John Mayall, and Robert “Jr.” Lockwood, it’s the true and often harrowing tales of surviving life as a young black share cropper in the deep South that resonate as strongly as the sound of King digging deep into the strings of his guitar Lucille.

Brewer lets King, as well as his siblings, cousins, and distant relatives, tell a story of a life of a young man surrounded by constant labor and the reality of the most inhumane violence, hatred, cruel conditions, terror, and hell behind the forces of that labor.

There is a look of pain on King’s face as he recalls having started picking cotton from “can to can’t” (“from when you can see to when you can’t”) at the early age of seven and witnessing the Ku Klux Klan brutally castrating and torturing a young black boy to death after being accused of talking to a white woman, An image that has haunted the king of the blues his entire life.

As King recently makes his way to his original home, a tape is played of King’s late father Albert, giving directions and reminiscing about the small rural plantation in Mississippi. This is one of the most touching moments in the film. The love and sorrow is in every expression on King’s face as he looks outside of his tour bus at the familiar sites as he hears his dad guiding him back home.

King visits his late mother’s grave site. She passed away of diabetes while King was barely a teen. After that, King was forced to move from one relative’s home to another.

King talks about feeling “abandoned” after his mother’s death. It was around this time that he discovered the guitar and it’s been the driving force of his life ever since.

As each tale unfolds, we hear the music of field hollers, and Mississippi “country” blues icons Charlie Patton, Bukka White (King’s cousin) and Blind Lemon Jefferson, not to mention fantastic footage of King performing throughout his illustrious career.

Brewer takes us on the long journey from Mississippi to Memphis, where King cut his very first sides at the legendary Sun Records studio for the Bullet and Modern labels.

There’s still nothing like that very first recording of “Three O’ Clock Blues” recorded in the early ‘50s for The Bihari Brothers. At this time, King became a disc jockey for Memphis’ radio station WDIA with Rufus Thomas.

From Memphis we’re taken on the “chitlin circuit” in the ‘60s where segregation is ever present. King recalls almost being killed in Memphis the night Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered when every room in the hotel King and his band were staying in was burned down.

In the midst of broken marriages, hit records, and long tours, King never stopped working on his music. Friends and band members praise the work ethic of this great man and how he loses himself in every single note of a performance. B.B. King becomes one with the music that comes from pain but is made out of love.

What makes The Life Of Riley better than most documentaries about the blues is that it serves as a poignant and powerful reminder of the true pain and dreadful conditions that gave birth to the real blues B.B. King plays that has almost been forgotten by younger generations of blues/rock musicians.   Today, hard times for a “blues” musician are when the balance on his/her Starbucks card gets too low for a refill.

Thank God these conditions have changed but it is clear that there are no more musicians alive today who play the honest, unfettered blues the way B.B. King still plays them.

All of the music industry stuff and talk by self- indulgent English blues plagiarists are mere fluff compared to the simple honesty of the story about love and survival portrayed in this film.

Music lovers do not miss this film.

This is the real deal.

 


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