By Fernando Gonzalez
Nights of Earth (Horizontal)
In some ways, it suggests a personal summation of his career thus far: a deep knowledge of American music vernacular and European classical music, with a refined craftsmanship as a composer and arranger to match, now permeated by his encounters with a world of music styles.
And yet for all its stylistic variety Nights on Earth never feels like a sort of musical Whitman’s Sampler. The mix of references, styles and instrumental colors, at times eyebrow-raising, feels organic, one man’s invitation to open our ears to the possibilities.
The opening “Otoño,” draws obviously from his experiences with flamenco (check Jazzpaña (ACT, 1993) or El Viento (ACT, 2009) with the Netherland’s Metropole Orchestra of which he is Music Director and Chief conductor), given an improbable twist with a B3 organ. “Ao Mar,” a song co-written with vocalist Luciana Souza, plays on the standard expectations of a bossa nova before unfolding in unpredictable ways. Or, as in “Addio” or “The Night We Met,” Mendoza takes advantage of the bittersweet melancholy of the bandoneón, the button squeezebox that is the quintessential instrument of tango, without ever drifting into any facile references.
Throughout, Mendoza sets singers and soloists with a jeweler’s hand. He’s working here with an exceptional cast, most of them long time friends and collaborators – including Joe Lovano and Bob Mintzer, sax; John Abercrombie, John Scofield and Nguyen Le on guitar, Alan Pasqua and Kenny Werner, piano – and knows how to frame them slightly East or West of their comfort zone to elicit a fresher response. And in “Shekere,” a song co-written with Malian kora player singer Tom Diakite, he works the dramatic tension by subtly pacing the call and response between vocalist and group, managing dynamics and orchestral colors.
Nights on Earth shows an artist at a peak of his craft and with a vision to match.
David Murray Cuban Ensemble
Plays Nat King Cole En Español (Mótema Music)
The work of singer and pianist Nat “King” Cole, and especially the work of Cole en español, might seem an unlikely subject for saxophonist David Murray. Then again, the one-time firebrand avant-gardist has been steadily evolving, sometimes seemingly in several directions at once, embracing a more classic approach on the horn, and growing, improbably, into a song stylist. Thematically working on his own growing library of compositions while also exploring Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Gene Ammons and John Coltrane, but also The Grateful Dead, collaborations with master players of the gwo ka percussion and vocal traditions from Guadeloupe, and Latin music.
In David Murray Cuban Ensemble Plays Nat King Cole En Español, Murray revisits Cole Español (1958) and More Cole Español (1962), part of a trilogy of albums by Cole in Spanish and Portuguese. (The third one is A Mis Amigos, recorded in 1959.)
Featuring a 10 piece group comprised of Cuban musicians and a string ensemble (the Sinfonieta of Sines), and recorded in Buenos Aires, Argentina and Sines, Portugal, Plays Nat King Cole includes nine reinterpretations of covers and one original, “Black Nat,” dedicated to Cole. Rocker-turned-tango-singer Daniel Melingo, a sort of Tom Waits of avant tango and in many ways the vocal opposite of smooth and cool Nat King Cole, contributes in four tracks. Bandoneón master Juan José Mosalini appears in one.
At his best, Murray, in the style of the old masters, doesn´t simply play the melodies here, he sings them on his horn. And if you know the lyrics of these songs, you´ll appreciate some of his choices. In “No Me Platiques,” a bolero he plays to a tart string accompaniment, Murray is positively Websterian as he states the theme before launching into a measured, but questioning solo. He lets Melingo’s ragged reading of the lyrics set the tone in a Caribbean-ized tango “A Media Luz,” before entering on bass clarinet, with an eloquent and smooth response to the singer’s call.
But Murray can be playful, too, as in the up-tempo version of Bobby Capó´s classic “Piel Canela,” or Consuelo Velazquez’s “Cachito.” Throughout, Murray peppers his playing with some of the vocabulary of his earlier day – bursts of notes in quick runs, wide leaps, and probing the melody from the outer reaches of the instrument.
Murray’s Cuban Ensemble not only contributes a knowing, solid foundation and an easy swing, but also strong soloing – alto saxophonist Roman Filiu on “Cachito,” and tenor Ariel Bringuez on Murray’s “Black Nat.”
David Murray Cuban Ensemble Plays Nat King Cole En Español is an idiosyncratic take on romance – restless, now tender, now tough, never quite easy, and never less than fascinating.
Urban Nature (Senator)
Sammy Figueroa’s Urban Nture is a substantial, beautifully constructed work that makes its points subtly. It draws on the Afro-Caribbean Latin Jazz tradition – but adds to it by opening to more diverse sources and treading softly around well worn formulas.
Also, this is Figueroa’s third album as a leader and the second with the same band. He has been leading his own groups since 2002 – flutist Dave Valentin and former Irakere tenor man Carlos Averhoff were early guests. But for the past five years he has been able to maintain a stable lineup — trumpeter Alex Pope Norris, saxophonist John Michalack, pianist Silvano Monasterios, bassist Gabriel Vivas and drummer Nomar Negroni. The effort is paying off.
It might strike as an odd compliment, but Urban Nature never sounds like Figueroa’s vehicle. Here, the music is the story.
Featuring nine original pieces, seven of them by either Monasterios or Vivas, in Urban Nature, Figueroa gets to pay his respects to Mongo Santamaría (on Nicholas Martines’ “Cuco y Olga”) and fly around in the opening “Gulfillo.” But there’s more to this recording than that: pieces such as the updates of standard cha-cha-cha (“Cha Cha Pa’ Ti,” and the title track); the driving, Chick Corea flavored “7th Door to Your Left”; and Monasterio’s elegiac “Zuliana,” based on a Venezuelan folk rhythm.
Throughout, the playing here is at once muscular and nuanced, loose but focused and flavored with touches of humor.
Figueroa has long made a name for himself as a percussionist and sideman (most recently with Sonny Rollins). Urban Nature might start establishing him as a leader.