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: The Jacob Szekely Trio

June 27, 2013

By Brian Arsenault

I think that the Jacob Szekely Trio, if based in Europe, would be recording for ECM.  I say that as a giant compliment because of ECM’s attention to purity of sound. No where is that more evident than in the spaces between pianist Josh Nelson’s notes on the self titled album’s closing song, “Postlude: Houston.”

ECM respects silences like no other label.  Their motto after all is the “Most Beautiful Sound Next to Silence.” But this review is about Szekely and his trio and the sounds here, as well as the silences, are superb.

Jacob Szekely

Jacob Szekely

The cello in Szekely’s special hands is transformative, literally.  At times a guitar, a bass guitar, a violin, a harp. But always, always a cello.  Is there anyone else in the world who plays the instrument like this. A musician who could clearly play classical — and at times nearly does here — but is broadly considered a jazz musician.

Better to forget labels. To paraphrase Duke Ellington, there really is only good music and bad music.  This is the good stuff.

What I think about Szekely and his cohorts — the aforementioned Nelson and drummer Christopher Allis — is that they are reaching, reaching for something better.  They are magic together but magic in the sense of something that lifts the spirit, that touches all the emotions from melancholy to buoyancy. There are no sidemen here, there are three excellent musicians playing together.

Cerebral and soulful in combination.  If you think I’m going to write at some point that this is music that’s not for everybody, I’m not.  It is for everybody but you have to let it flow over you without expectations.

Perhaps play it on a Sunday morning when there’s less noise in your life and in your head, maybe while cooking breakfast or just savoring a soft morning. It is not to be hurried.

During part of my listening, the damn street cleaner went by with its loud jarring sound.  I hit the pause button and if I’d had a rocket launcher I swear my town’s streets would be dirtier for a long time.

There is delicacy herein but delicacy is strength not weakness. There are also robust moments, poetic ones, enchanting ones. Music to entice deeper thoughts and feelings.

And as I said above, reaching, reaching.  I’m not sure I know for what but Szekely himself says in a note in the CD jacket that he hopes “you will hear three musicians stretching themselves in new directions and hopefully finding something beautiful in the end.”


A footnote: I have no right to suggest this but I’d love to hear this trio work with a singer and I have a suggestion.  Play with Little Lonely (Julie Cain).  These are the two most beautiful albums I’ve heard so far this year however different they may be.  The combination might be marvelous but such things almost never happen because great talents must almost always go their own way.

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

Record Rack: Spin Doctors, Bracher Brown and Quattro

April 26, 2013

            Sometimes a Reviewer’s Just Lucky

            Three Very Different Albums Connected Only by Their Excellence

 By Brian Arsenault

 Spin Doctors

If the River Was Whiskey (Rufus Records)

DIf you’re a ‘90’s kid, chances are you can still remember the words to Spin Doctors’ “Pocket Full of Kryptonite” and that favorite guy anthem to the hated former girl friend/bitch, “Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong.”  I mean was there ever a nastier tune on hit radio and was a band bigger than Spin Doctors in the era?

So 25 years down the road, what is a listener to expect? Maybe not expected, but one sizzling blues album is what you get.

Hey, you can’t be a teen band forever, but these guys can do this till they’ve been around a half century.

“If the River Was Whiskey, (you’d) have no trouble drowning me.”  Hell of a lyric, hell of a song.

Chris Barron’s voice is deeper than in the early days. Whiskey? Cigs? Or just the passage of time. It works.

And Eric Schenkman’s guitar can flash it like he’s playing for Billy Boy Arnold, or do the slow hand. The rhythm section of Aaron Comess on drums and Mark White on bass are tight as can be.

The whole band is.

There’s some Howlin’ Wolf (title song) here and some Allman Brothers feel (“Scotch and Water Blues”)  as well.  Yet the Spin Doctors are their own self.

On tunes like “What My Love?” it’s real hard to sit still. “Scotch and Water Blues” just builds and builds and “About a Train” has a nice Delta flavor suitable for roadhouses.

The album makes you ache a bit for smoky bars smelling of beer and less savory stuff.  But the playing is real clean.

Bracher Brown

Broken Glass and Railroad Tracks (Rock Ridge Music, digital only)

A tough old businessman of Irish heritage that I knew and valued until his death said that one of the worst prejudices was that a young person couldn’t do a good job, maybe better.

So here comes Bracher Brown who makes you think that if the Beatles had been born in America under 20 years ago, this is what they might have sounded like.  Intelligent lyrics about the start of love, the end of love, the desire for love. Rhythms that we used to call infectious.  Seductive guitar licks.

“Singing songs about what life was supposed to be.”

Young but not untested in the furnace of life.

 “Haven’t slept in days but I’m all right.”

Even acquainted with absence that may be death —

“living with your ghost.”

And a love song — “Loving You” — that rings true; a song about what he knows about life at 18 that’s not to be patronized.  After all, we may never know more, we may just shut down and call it experience.

He’s not shut down at all. Thank goodness.


Poppzzical  (Quattro Sound)

Ok, so you know there are four of them on Poppzzical. Mixed gender (two of each), mixed ethnicity, mixed musical backgrounds.  So, of course, all American in all our splendid, confusing mishmash of cultures that often produces remarkable music.

There’s a violin, often gypsy-like (Lisa Dondlinger). She can play for Pavarotti or Dancing with the Stars.

There’s a cello, also an amazing Latin influenced voice (Giovanna Moraga Clayton). Uh, Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, New West Symphony).

Are you starting to get the picture?  They can match the exuberance of their own crafted “Good Day” — “try to bring me down will be time wasted” — with some Vivaldi done as classical sound with jazz shifts.

There’s a guitar which can lead and support, strum and sing (Kay-Ta Matsuno) who can play for Baby Face or Natalie Cole and a whole bunch of other folks too numerous to name here.

Finally there’s percussion work born in Tijuana, Mexico (Jorge Villanueva) who’s played on movie scores, in Latino bands and co-owns a film and TV scoring company.

So, as you can imagine, there’s a lot going on in this album they’ve made.

“Silky” is happy and melancholy at the same time.  There’s a guitar solo that resembles a violin piece.  Or is that a violin with cello as bass. Or both.  Ha, I don’t care. It’s music that’s unique.  I can’t think of any assemblage that sounds like Quattro.

Their Spanish language soul and Latino dance music.  If I could samba I would have on “Mi Conguero.“  That may even be the wrong dance but it’s the right feeling.

The album closes with “Hana Bi” and the guitar and violin take flight together.  The cello soars after them.

And maybe that’s it: flying, soaring, breaking free of forms while paying homage to them. In a musical world of too much sameness, the individuality and creativity of this young group is not to be missed.

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

Record Rack: Gerald Clayton, Steve Kuhn and Roberta Piket

March 15, 2013

Pianos On The Loose

By Don Heckman

 Gerald Clayton: Life Forum (Concord Music)

I’ve been listening to and marveling at the playing of Gerald Clayton since he was displaying all the makings of a unique jazz artist while still a teen-ager.  Now 28, with three Grammy nominations, his credentials have been thoroughly established, and never more so than on this far-ranging set of performances.  Working with his regular associates – bassist  Joe Sanders and drummer Justin Brown – he moves confidently and inventively through a compelling collection of intriguing original works.  Clayton’s rich imagination reaches out to embrace the contributions of saxophonists Logan Richardson and Dayna Stephens, trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, vocalists Gretchen Parlato and Sachal Vasandani and poet Carl Hancock.  That’s a diverse collection of musical sounds, styles and substance – a challenge fully met by a pianist well on his way toward the top of his field.

Steve Kuhn: The Vanguard Date (Sunnyside)

With a track record that reaches from John Coltrane in the ‘60s into the multi-hued present, Steve Kuhn has been a pianist whose creative accomplishments embrace the entire jazz spectrum, from bebop to avant-garde.  The Vanguard Date, first released in 1986 on the Owl label is a stunning display of Kuhn in his fully mature mode, moving with utter confidence from the grooving bop of Tadd Dameron’s “Superjet” to the soaring lyricism of his own “Lullaby.” At the heart of the program — his virtually symbiotic interaction with bassist Ron Carter and drummer Al Foster.

Roberta Piket: Solo (Thirteenth Note Records)

The rich thoughtfulness that characterizes Roberta Piket’s inventive improvising is immediately apparent on the first track of Solo, in which she plays a darkly moody version of “I See Your Face Before Me” in a style reminiscent of Erik Satie’s Gymnopedie No. 1.  Her previous three albums have ranged through strings and woodwinds, electric instruments and the classic piano trio.  But this time out she approaches the piano in the classic solo sense, as a virtual orchestra in itself.  In the process she brings new light to such familiar jazz lines as “Monk’s Dream” (in two variations), Chick Corea’s “Litha,” Wayne Shorter’s “Nefertiti” and Duke Ellington’s “Something To Live For.”  Add to that a lyrical rendering of “Estate” and a final, gently blues-driven piece by her father, Frederick Piket.  The result, in sum, is an intriguing overview of a jazz pianist who still hasn’t quite received the ovations that her unique talents deserve.

Short Takes: Between the Silences of ECM Records

January 9, 2013

 A Consideration of Mercurial Balm and On the Dance Floor

 By Brian Arsenault

What, then, to make of these envelopes of ECM released CDs which keep appearing in my mailbox?

Oh, the envelopes are plain enough. Unadorned brown wrappers as if the contents might be Viagra from India or girly magazines shipped discreetly from 1960.  Instead, CDs cluster inside from bands with unlikely names such as Food and album titles as curious as Resume and Ronin.

Jazz for the most part, I guess. Italian trumpeter Enrico Rava performs On the Dance Floor with the PM Jazz Lab after all. But I often struggle to wrap my American rock ’n roll, bluesy head around ECM fare much more than what I’ve grown up with as American Jazz.  The difference seems as great as that between a Hemingway novel and any of Dostoevsky’s works.


It’s true that I named Nik Bartsch’s Ronin one of my favorite albums of 2012 but that was because I found it so mesmerizing, not because I hummed along or tapped my foot.  The sound poetry of the album seemed accessible if abstract, mysterious yet somehow familiar.

There seems to be such seriousness of purpose in these ECM recordings. So serious in fact that, as with the novels of Thomas Mann, I wonder if we aren’t dealing with art that is a little cold and remote, however accomplished.  The sounds produced by, say, Food, an ever changing group of musicians centered by saxophonist Iain Bellamy and drummer Thomas Stronen.

I want to yell, “Hey, I’ll take my music a little muddier as in earthier, thanks.”  Less cerebral.  It’s no sin to dance and feel good. Well, maybe if you’re a Baptist . . . And how about some laughter or at least a little lightness of spirit.

 Still, there’ll be an achingly beautiful sax riff or a trumpet burst as glorious as a soaring cathedral in Food‘s Mercurial Balm.  Not for long, though.  Here come the electronics that on the surface don’t much appeal to a dinosaur listener like me.  Yet those electronic percussion sounds will emerge from a seeming cacophony to a surprisingly melodic passage.

Is this where jazz is going?  Or music itself? Have we explored all the passages of conventional instruments, harmony, even symphonics?  Must we now move on to instruments I can’t pronounce, or to absolutely new uses of commonplace instruments like the slide guitar. Listen to Prakash Sontakke’s steel guitar taken to Mars on the title tune of  Mercurial Balm, for example.

Are they reaching for “the twinkling of the stars” or making a music of the beeps and boops and other quickly becoming familiar sounds of the computer age?  Or are those two things the same?  I’m not sure.

Then along comes “On the Dance Floor” and I go “Here’s something that will connect” because it’s Rava’s interpretation of the music of Michael Jackson.  Now I’ve never been a huge Jackson fan (Rava admits he wasn’t either for a long time) but you can’t be alive in America and not have heard a lot of Jackson music over three or four decades. At least I’ll recognize most of it.

Surprise. No, I can’t figure out what Rava is doing with “Thriller,” can’t even hear it at times. But Rava can produce these wonderful round trumpet notes and the playing of the whole band is often beautiful.  Wait, was that a tuba solo just there?  No, no tuba in the band.

And is the gap between European classicism and American pop just too great?  Again, I’m not sure.

With ECM recordings, I feel at times I’ve become a vanquished listener.  Europeans are supposed to be more sophisticated than us Americans, right? And maybe so. There’s a kind of German technical perfection at its best in the quality of ECM recordings.  That’s no small thing if you’ve ever driven their cars.

There’s something important going on at ECM.  I’m just not always getting it. But it’s worth the effort.  For now, though, I think I’ll go listen to Jimi do Bob Dylan.  That’s a view from the watchtower that I do get, even though it couldn‘t have been imagined until Jimi just did it.

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

Classical CD: Michael Maniaci “Mozart Arias For Male Soprano”

January 29, 2010

Michael Maniaci

Mozart Arias For Male Soprano (Telarc)

By Don Heckman

The words “male soprano” may sound like a contradiction in terms, an oxymoron.  And it largely has been so for the past century and more.  Nonetheless, a substantial catalog of music was composed for male sopranos, mostly in the 17th and 18th centuries.  And historical references to their work reach as far back as the fifth century and as recently as the mid-19th century.

The overwhelming majority of those male sopranos were eunuchs, castrated before puberty to retain the range of a prepubescent voice with the lung and breath power of an adult male.  Only a few recordings of an actual castrato remain – from a scratchy cylinder recording by Alessandro Moreschi made in 1904 (reportedly well past his prime).  But the quality and the challenges of the music composed for these remarkable artists – especially during the late 17th and early 18th centuries – clearly indicate the length and breadth of their extraordinary abilities.

Over the years, a very few male sopranos grew to maturity with similar capabilities as the result of endocrinological conditions.  Other high male vocalizing is present in countertenors and in falsetto singing.  But none of those conditions are the source of male soprano Michael Maniaci’s voice.  In the liner notes to this CD he explains that “While my vocal cords lengthened and thickened somewhat, they didn’t do so to the extent that most men experience. My voice comfortably goes to a soprano high C, and I’m most comfortable in the two octave register from high C to middle C.”

“Comfortable” is an understatement to describe Maniaci’s performance in this collection of Mozart arias, accompanied by the Boston Baroque, directed by Martin Pearlman.  The first notes of the recitative and aria Ah qual gelido orror…il padre adorato from Idomeneo instantly make it clear that we are hearing a remarkable soprano voice – clear, airy, moving freely into the top notes, yet delivered with a stunning degree of strength and power.   Here, as elsewhere in the program, Maniaci affirms that he is not simply an unusual musical phenomenon, he is also a gripping interpretive artist.

The lovely aria Ah se a morir mi chiama from Lucio Silla reveals yet another quality – a soaring lyricism rendered with subtle dynamic control and utterly fluid ornamentation.   And the Allegro, Alleluja from the motet Exsultate, Jubilate provides the opportunity for coda displaying Maniaci’s brilliant, high wire vocal articulation.

But for this listener, the aria Parto, ma tu ben mio from La Clemenza Di Tito is the highlight of the album, largely because Mozart composed such a gorgeous duet for soprano voice and clarinet (written for his close friend Anton Stadler).  Mancini brings it to life, winding supplely in and around the flowing clarinet lines performed superbly here – by Nina Stern or Diane Heffner (unfortunately the liner notes are not specific).

We’ll never actually know, of course, exactly what the castrati of the 17th and 18th centuries sounded like.  But, in Michael Maniaci’s voice, we hear qualities that surely come close to revealing the aural secrets of one of music history’s most fascinating and mysterious eras.

CD Revew: Simone Dinnerstein: “The Berlin Concert”

September 9, 2008

Simone Dinnerstein

Simone Dinnerstein

“The Berlin Concert” (Telarc)

By Don Heckman

Okay, let’s start with full disclosure.  I’m not usually a fan of Bach’s music played on a contemporary piano. Not because it can’t be done well.  Glen Gould killed that rumor, many times, over and over.  What bothers me has more to do with the instrument’s sonorities, as well as its mechanics.  Too many of the Bach-on-the-piano recordings I’ve heard flow from the piano-as-orchestra concept, essentially missing the point of the music.  Worse, In doing so, they rarely manage to elude the aural dominance of the instrument, itself, which is ever present as the carrier of each note.

Simone Dinnerstein’s recording of the Goldberg Variations (“Bach: The Goldberg Variations,” also on Telarc), however, proved me wrong on both counts.  And this new CD, recorded during a concert at the Berlin Philharmonic on Nov. 22, 2007, underscores the accomplishments of the previous recording.  Here, as in the Variations, Dinnerstein’s playing is utterly transparent, transporting the listener beyond the mechanics of pianistic production, into the music itself.  How it is made becomes irrelevant to what one hears — to the intimate connection Dinnerstein creates with the composer’s imagination.

Although works by Bach only make up a third or so of the program, his presence permeates the other pieces as well: Philip Lasser’s Twelve Variations on a Chorale by J.S. BachNimm von uns, Herr, du treuer Gott from Cantata 101— and Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 32 in C minor, Op. 111 Lasser’s Variations, reaching from an 18 second Piu Vivo to a climactic 3:37 minute Andante con moto. tred an adventurous path from Baroque counterpoint to a segment or two with distinct touches of jazz balladry.  Dinnerstein travels it with ease.

The Beethoven Sonata, his last, is as challenging in an interpretive sense as it is technically thorny, especially in the stunning cross-currents of the Arietta movement.  Listen for the subtle emotions of the anthemic opening, the swing she brings to the middle, ragtimey section, and her astonishing trills.

The two Bach segments — the French Suite No. 5 in G major and, as an encore, Variation 13 from the Goldberg Variations — are yet another reminder of her intuitive link with the music of the Baroque master.  Combined with her Beethoven insights and her capacity to handle the contemporary complexities of the Lasser work, they provide further authentication of her status as the most fascinating new classical pianist arrival of the decade.


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