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

 


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 (and beyond) With An Accent: A Bad Moon Rising for The Final

July 12, 2014

By Fernando Gonzalez

After a month of a World Cup, many Americans have come to learn some of the, umm, peculiarities of fútbol (soccer if you must), including its rituals both in the pitch and the stands.

Yes, Virginia, in places such as Argentina and Germany, who meet in the final, fútbol is a religion.

The chanting by the followers of a team can sometimes be as distinct as the colors of a club´s shirt. Perhaps the most obvious example is British Premier League’s Liverpool´s “You’ll Never Walk Alone” — a Rodgers and Hammerstein tune from their show Carousel, of all things.

(For a history check click HERE. )

Starting at about 4 minutes into this video you can hear about 95,000 people sing it along. You don´t need to even be interested in soccer to be moved by it.  Click HERE.

This Sunday, Argentina’s followers will support their team with a song that, if you pay attention, will sound familiar to many Americans: yep, that’s Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Bad Moon Rising.” With new lyrics, in Spanish of course, including some needling of arch rival Brazil, and the eternal argument among fans over Maradona and Pele, it has become a favorite of the Argentine fans.

Why that song? Why now? (The song was popular in 1969.) How did it make it to the stands? That’s a mystery for a story, another day. In the meantime, there’s one more game to play.

Go Argentina.

 


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.

 


Jazz With an Accent: The Preservation Hall Jazz Band; Horacio “Chivo” Borraro; Guerrilla Flamenco

June 20, 2012

By Fernando Gonzalez

 The Joy of Jazz

If their  recent show in Coral Gables, Florida, was any indication, and you love jazz, you need to hear the Preservation Hall Jazz Band live. You might dismiss it, as I once did, as just a repertory band, a sort of charming, rolling live museum act evoking what might-have-been. And there might be some of that. But with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band you also get the joy of jazz, smart, angst-free jazz, played with great professionalism but also with pleasure and a sense of humor (watching sousaphone player Ronell Johnson march in place, bob, weave and turn all the way through the performance was part of my enjoyment that night).

Preservation Hall Jazz Band

The music was soulful and swung forcefully yet with a casual grace of a conversation among old friends, counterlines seem to grow along, curling like vines around the main melody. It was both sturdy and lithe, complex yet appealing.  The ensemble played what it must, but the audience clearly felt invited in. I suspect jazz gained a few more believers that night. Having fun is an undervalued concept in jazz — and the music has paid dearly for it. But the Preservation Hall Jazz Band taught a master class in jazz disguised as a good-time show. That’s an art in itself — and jazz has had some great practitioners. (Dizzy is a prime example of the genius disguised as entertainer).

Obviously, not every style in jazz lends itself easily to this approach. But by definition, jazz will always live in that netherworld between art music and entertainment. It’s both a weakness and a source of strength. And to have a place in the cultural marketplace, jazz needs to connect with audiences, be it in the composition, the playing or the presentation.

It played out vividly before me at that show by The Preservation Hall Jazz Band, a ensemble created 50 years ago precisely to evoke the very roots of jazz — in substance and form.

No, the challenge is not new, but the urgency is — or we can look at classical music and see the future of jazz.

Click HERE to read an iRoM review of a performance by the Preservation Hall Jazz Band at the Playboy Jazz Festival in the Hollywood Bowl on Sunday, June 16.

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R.I.P. Horacio “Chivo” Borraro

It’s a shame that few outside Argentina knew of saxophonist and clarinetist Horacio “Chivo” Borraro, who died on May 31 at age 90 in Buenos Aires.

Horacio “Chico” Borraro

A player, composer and arranger, Borraro was a renaissance man. He was also an architect and worked, at different times, as a painter, designer, photographer and cartoonist. An early bebopper, Borraro was one of the founders of the Bop Club in Buenos Aires in the early 50s and a key figure in a small but sturdy scene that nurtured artists such as Lalo Schifrin and Leandro “Gato” Barbieri.

El “Chivo” Borraro was an active player from the 1930´s to the 1990´s — and by the time he stopped he had tried his hand at nearly every jazz style, all the way to free jazz. He had a Coltranean, brawny sound on the tenor, but quit when he “started to realize I didn´t have the will to play I always had.”

“I was having trouble reaching the upper octave of the saxophone, so I wasn´t able to do what I wanted to do with the horn anymore,” he told Miguel Bronfman for a story in The Buenos Aires Herald in 2005. “So I stopped playing, and I didn´t lament it, everything begins and everything ends. So I sold the saxophone and I bought a keyboard instead, with which I make arrangements for friends. I was getting frustrated with the sax, so I decided to retire myself with the championship belt, before I got knocked out.”

Much of Borraro’s music has become available through reissues in recent years and it’s worth exploring. Here’s a sample:

“Half & half”

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Guerrilla Flamenco

The European colleagues of the greedy geniuses at Wall Street who almost destroyed the world economy  a few years ago are working hard in their own countries to give it another try. In a globalized economy, don’t think it’s someone else’s problem.

Spain is the latest casualty and as it’s the norm, the banks are in line to be saved. The people are to fend for themselves. (Stop me if you heard this before.)

One form of Spanish protest has been guerrilla flamenco performances in the banks.  It is in Spanish, but the message is clear. Maybe we can have a blues version of this in some JP Morgan branch?

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Photo of Preservation Hall Jazz Band by Bonnie Perkinson.


Jazz With an Accent: Music, the Brain and the Internet

May 30, 2012

Twitter Music

By Fernando Gonzalez

A couple of weeks ago I had the chance to hear the David Sanchez Quartet with Stefon Harris in concert. It was, by any reasonable jazz standard, a beautiful performance. The music, for the most part originals, was compelling and nicely designed. The group worked like a chamber ensemble, eschewing look-at-me posturing to actually listen to each other and maintain the music front and center. And when the players did solo, they did it with imagination and eloquence.

What troubled me about the performance had to do with technology, the Internet and my brain.

The Internet

As a music journalist/critic, I am a sort of professional listener. Moreover, I was educated as a musician. I was once a professional player and composer. And yet that Saturday evening, at times, I found myself lost. Worse yet, I found myself getting impatient with the length of a piece or a particular solo. The concert had a break (at the request of the promoter, explained Sanchez) and yet it felt to me like a marathon.

The audience — I’d estimate the average age in the mid-50s — listened politely and applauded at the expected moments, neither particularly engaged, nor actively disapproving.

Perhaps most, if not all, of my issues that night might be chalked up to my own deficiencies and that’s that. Then again, if it didn’t engage me, well, it didn’t engage me. Perhaps the concert was not as good as I thought. Perhaps.

But the experience was also a personal reminder of how technology is rewiring our brains.

“We shape our tools and afterwards our tools shape us,” wrote Marshall McLuhan in his seminal Understanding Media.

Instruments such as Google, tablets and smart phones are profoundly affecting the way we read, look, listen, think and even use our memory. And they do it in ways we are not even aware of. (Quick, write down the phone numbers of three close friends or family members. I thought so.)

“I can’t read War and Peace anymore. I’ve lost the ability to do that. Even blog posts of more than three or four paragraphs are too much to absorb. I skim it,” says a pathologist on the faculty of the University of Michigan Medical School and blogger on Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows, a book on the effects of the Internet on our brains.

What similar impact might our new tools might have upon our listening habits and, inevitably as a result, on the creation, performance, presentation and consuming of music?

Because, after all, as much as many look at the development of jazz with a Great Man Theory of history (say Armstrong to Ellington to Parker to Miles to Coltrane….), other, more mundane factors have played significant roles in shaping the music.

The advent of the long playing disc granted composers, arrangers and improvisers possibilities up to then unthinkable. The size of the clubs in 52nd St. might have played a greater role in the music going from big bands to small groups (and thus spurring on the development of bebop) than the talent of any one particular musician.

We should anticipate that the changes that technology continues to make to the way we process information will also have consequences.

I am not saying anything startlingly new or particularly astute here. In fact others have said it better. (The subject is brilliantly addressed by Carr in The Shallows.)

If there is a (modest) contribution to the discussion here, it is in asking how these changes are affecting our listening to music in general and jazz in particular – and how, in turn, this will shape the way music is created, designed and presented.

After all, music is an art form that happens in time and depends on memory. In the specific case of jazz, even in its most conventional format, to appreciate the reinterpretation and commentary suggested by the improvisation, the listener must be able to have some recall of the original material. Otherwise, it’s gibberish or some form of musical gymnastics.

In other words, as our memory withers, replaced by gadgets, and our attention span gets shorter and shorter, will there be in a few years an audience capable of remembering an eight-bar-theme that happened five, 10 minutes earlier? And if the listeners are not able to recall even the most basic theme, or lack the patience and discipline to connect the dots over a simple musical form, what could they then make of an improvisation?  (Or in classical music: What happens with Bruckner or Mahler?)

And as audiences inevitably get increasingly lost and frustrated and impatient, go looking for something shorter and simpler, what can the composers, improvisers and presenters do?  In all fairness, is there anything they should do?

On that Saturday night, a couple of weeks ago, David Sanchez and his group played a concert that at times had me baffled and irritated because, well, it had no hyperlinks, no keywords, no way to skim over and get faster to the good parts.

What did they expect?

Come to think of it, what do we expect?

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


Jazz with an Accent: New CDs from e.s.t., Tania Maria and Eddie Gomez, Alfredo Rodriguez, Diego Schissi, and Christian Escoude

May 23, 2012

By Fernando Gonzalez

The music business might be not much of a business these days, but the quantity, variety and quality of the music being released is quite astonishing. No, not every recording is great or even merely necessary. Few would argue against democratizing the production and delivery process in music – but on the other hand, not everybody who can make a recording should. That said, trying to stay up to date with worthy new releases has become a frustrating proposition. Rather than “Jazz with an Accent” these notes might soon be titled “Running after the Bus.”

Here are some notable new releases.

 e.s.t.

301 (ACT)

Just about as it was gaining recognition as one of the most promising groups in 21st century jazz the Esbjorn Svensson Trio, or e.s.t., came to a brutally abrupt, tragic end when its pianist and leader died in a scuba diving accident in June, 2008.  The sound of the trio, which included drummer Magnus Öström and bassist Dan Berglund, was an intriguing mix. It could play as cooly lyrical jazz one moment, informed by European classical music and Nordic sensibilities, and blow up as drum’n’bass, with bits of noise and electronics and a ferocious rock energy the next.

Culled from the material developed in two days of jamming in a studio in Sydney, Australia, in 2007 in the off days of an Asia and Australia tour, 301 plays as a terrific summation of the group’s power and music. It is actually the second posthumous recording from those sessions. According to the promotional information, Svensson had edited the material from those sessions down to two albums. Only one was released — Leucocyte (ACT 2008). Edited by Öström, Berglund and the band’s regular sound engineer Ake Linton, 301 (the name refers to Sydney’s Studio 301 where it was recorded) shows a mature, confident group working as a unit, listening hard, paying attention to dynamics and generally pushing and chasing each other down unexpected rabbit holes.  It’s tempting, But pointless, to hear 301 and wonder what might have been. What it is, is remarkable.

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Tania Maria with Eddie Gomez

Tempo (Naïve)

France-based Brazilian pianist and vocalist Tania Maria’s first album of new music in nearly six years is a surprising, small pleasure. A capable pianist who also was once nominated for a Grammy as a jazz vocalist (at one point in time her label promoted her as sounding  “sometimes” like a “Brazilian Aretha Franklin”), Tania Maria gained an international following as a fiery, high-energy performer. But in Tempo, a duet recording featuring bassist Eddie Gomez, her approach, while still full of verve, is pared down to essentials — and made better for it.

Tania Maria’s originals are all instrumentals, none particularly memorable but all well constructed. She draws from Brazilian music, blues and jazz and frames the mix with a pop sensibility.  She sings here, very effectively, in both Italian (“Estate,” an Italian pop hit since turned standard by artists as disparate as Joao Gilberto and Shirley Horn), and Portuguese (“Sentado A Beira Do Camino,” “A Chuva Caiu,” and “Bronzes e Cristais”).

Gomez is an invaluable partner throughout, laying down a solid foundation with a percussive edge, smartly letting the music breathe but also forceful and active when needed. And, no news here, Gomez is an effective soloist,  including  a beautifully bowed performance in Tania Maria’s “Senso Unico.”

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 In short …

 Alfredo Rodriguez: Sounds of Space (Mack Avenue)

The debut recording of LA-based Cuban pianist Alfredo Rodriguez plays like a sampler  –  all original pieces in a variety of styles, both traditional and his own, showcasing his technical breadth and depth.  Consider the opening “Qbafrica,” with its baroque Hermeto Pascoal references, leading into the elegant bolero “Sueño de Paseo,” and back up again to the burner “Silence.” Rodriguez is featured here leading two ensembles, one from Cuba, the other one based on the United States.

 Diego Schissi Quinteto: Tongos (Sunnyside)

Argentine pianist and composer calls his music “not tango, but close.” In fact, his post-Piazzolla tango features a similar instrumentation to that of the maestro’s (violin, guitar, bandoneón, bass and piano) and shares references (Bartok and Stravinsky as well as tango tradition) before going its own way. Not much improvisation here, but smart writing, beautifully shaded, and paced playing and a path to the tango for the 21st century – or something close to it.

Christian Escoudé Plays Brassens (Sunnyside)

How much you may enjoy this release by French guitarist Christian Escoudé does not depends on how much you know about the great poet and songwriter George Brassens. Originally mostly voice-and-guitar songs, Escoudé treats them as standards and arranges them for various sextets. If you know these songs, you´ll appreciate the humor and affection in Escoudé´s versions. But even if you don´t, the pleasures in these well-constructed songs and the unhurried swing and modestly displayed virtuosity of Escoudé and his ensemble (which includes guitarist Birelli Lagrene on one track) need no translation. A delight.

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


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