Film Review: Chico & Rita

March 6, 2011

Chico & Rita

Directed by Fernando Trueba, Javier Mariscal, Tono Errando

Screenplay  by Fernando Trueba, Ignacio Martínez de Pisón

Music by Bebo Valdés

By Fernando Gonzalez

“Chico y Rita” has been presented at several film festivals but does not yet have commercial distribution. It is being reviewed here for its evocation of a significant period in jazz and Latin music.

For more information about screenings and festival bookings, click HERE.

Chico & Rita, the animated feature film by Fernando Trueba, Javier Mariscal, and Tono Errando that opened the 28th Miami International Film Festival Friday night,  follows the romantic story of the title characters. But Chico & Rita is really about the love affair between Trueba & Co. with Latin jazz and the Havana and New York of the 1940s and ‘50s.

The fictional tale of pianist Chico Valdés and singer Rita LaBelle is part Hollywood pulp melodrama, part telenovela. It’s  a boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl story that plays out over several decades and a number of cities, as chance and dastardly deeds separate them. Will love triumph at the end? You get the idea.

But the story of Chico and Rita is actually both the subject and the pretext for a lush, visually stunning, and musically charming recreation of an era.

The film is a collaboration between: Trueba, an Oscar  winner who directed Calle 54, a valentine to Latin Jazz, and has also become, in recent years, a jazz record producer; Mariscal, a visual artist and designer; and animator Tono Errando.  Cuban pianist and bandleader Bebo Valdés, 92, who once actually sat at the piano and led the orchestra at the Tropicana Club in Havana, wrote the music score and plays on the soundtrack. The film is dedicated to him.

In Chico & Rita, the creators have  evoked a pre-Revolution, neon-lit Havana so effectively that there were murmurs of recognition among the audience in Miami, as many were no doubt taken back by images of longed-for places and old store signs.  So, too, for the scenes of New York City’s legendary music joints and larger-than-life musicians making jazz history every night.

Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Chano Pozo, Ben Webster, Nat “King” Cole, and Tito Puente are some of the artists whose images have cameo appearances throughout the film.  Their instrumentals are played on the soundtrack by a first rate cast of musicians including Jimmy Heath (Webster), Michael Philip Mossman (Gillespie), Irakere’s Germán Velazco (Parker) and Freddy Cole (Nat King Cole). Flamenco star singer Estrella Morente plays herself. Valdés plays piano for his screen counterpart, and Rita is sung by Cuban singer Idania Valdés (no relation to Bebo).

There are many musical references throughout the film that will make jazz and Latin jazz lovers nod and smile in recognition: Monk sitting in at a jam; Tito Puente at the Palladium;  Chico idling at the piano and slyly paying tribute to bebop (and Bud Powell?). There is also the tragic story of Chano Pozo´s killing, allusions to Wim Wenders and the Buena Vista Social Club phenomenon, and the Latin GRAMMY-winning Lágrimas Negras, an improbable worldwide hit in 2004 by Valdés and flamenco singer Diego El Cigala.

The drawings, the animation and, especially, the music are so delightful, that it feels petty to object to some choices in the setup and the telling of the story, or point to the odd mistake (e.g. Parker, an alto sax player heard playing an alto, is drawn with a tenor).

The bottom line is that the music and the images in Chico & Rita will stay with you long after you’ve forgotten the particulars of their tale.

(Note that this is an animated film for adults that includes nudity and sex scenes that make it not suitable for children.)

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

An Appreciation: Enrique Morente

December 13, 2010

By Fernando Gonzalez

Singer Enrique Morente, arguably the leading voice in flamenco, died today (Monday Dec. 13) at a private hospital in Madrid. He had been in an induced coma since December 6, after undergoing surgery for stomach cancer. Morente would have been 68 on December 25.

A cantaor (singer) with impeccable traditional credentials, Morente will probably be most remembered as a fearless innovator who was seemingly always open to experimentations and collaborations that might expand the flamenco vocabulary. He not only put to flamenco music the works of poets Federico Garcia Lorca and Antonio Machado,  sang Vivaldi,  and explored Gregorian chant, and flamenco’s connections with Cuban and African music (the show Africa-Cuba-Cai in Mallorca in 2002).  He also did the same with jazz (with Max Roach’s M’Boom ensemble no less, in Seville in 1992) and, perhaps most notably, alternative rock.

His 1996 album Omega, was a collaboration with the group Lagartija Nick and a superb lineup of flamenco players including guitarists Tomatito, Cañizares and Vicente Amigo. The piece featured songs by Leonard Cohen  (such as “Manhattan” ) and the poetry of Garcia Lorca.  (It was presented live at BAM’s Next Wave Festival in 2003.)

“I’ve never pretended to innovate, but to create and express myself,” he was quoted by the Spanish newspaper El Pais, after the reissue of Omega.

Morente was also interested in theatre, appearing as an actor in several productions,  and while he didn’t write or read music, he did compose music for theater, film, and television.

A completed new recording and DVD, titled El Barbero de Picasso (Picasso´s Barber) is scheduled for release next March. Morente had already paid tribute to Picasso the writer, adapting several of his texts to flamenco, in his Pablo de Malaga (2008).

A selected Enrique Morente discography:

Cantes Antiguos del Flamenco (with guitarist Niño Ricardo) (Hispavox, 1986)

Se Hace Camino al Andar (Hispavox, 1975,1996)

Homenaje a Don Antonio Chacón (with guitarist Pepe Habichuela, Hispavox, 1978)

Misa Flamenca (featuring flamenco fusion with Gregorian chant). (Ariola, 1991)

Omega (with Lagartija Rock, Tomatito, Cañizares, and others. (El Europeo, 1996)

Morente – Sabicas (with Sabicas). (Ariola, 1990)

Sacromonte (with Isidro Sanlúcar and Tomatito).  (Sony, 1986)

Lorca (Virgin-Chewaca, 2000)

An Appreciation: Mario Pacheco

November 30, 2010

By Fernando Gonzalez

Spanish producer and photographer Mario Pacheco, an influential figure in contemporary Spanish music, especially Nuevo Flamenco, died Friday at his home in Madrid after a long illness. He was 60.

He was the soul of  Nuevos Medios, the independent label he founded in 1982 and which, at one time or another, featured groups such as Ketama, Barbería del Sur, and Pata Negra, and influential artists such as singer Martirio, composer, arranger, and keyboardist Joan Albert Amargos, bassist Carles Benavent, and reedman Jorge Pardo. Many of those groups and artists went on to greater commercial, if not artistic, success in bigger, richer record labels.

At the time of his death, Pacheco was the president of the Unión Fonográfica Independiente (UFI), the association of Spanish independent labels.

Nuevo Flamenco is an umbrella term popularized in the 1970s for fusions of flamenco with pop, jazz, blues, and African styles. These fusions revolutionized the genre, took it beyond traditionalist enclaves and the tourist postcard trade, and made it popular well beyond its natural audience. But under Pacheco, Nuevos Medios had an eclectic and creative bent, and also released recordings by  Joy Division, New Order, Pat Metheny, Robert Wyatt, Steve Reich, Bill Evans, legendary Peruvian singer songwriter Chabuca Granda, and Cuban pianist, singer and songwriter Bola de Nieve, among others.  Quality was the common thread.

Still, Pacheco´s true impact was in Nuevo Flamenco with releases such as Los Jovenes Flamencos, Blues de la Frontera (by flamenco-blues group Pata Negra), Quien No Corre Vuela by Ray Heredia, and Songhai — an exceptional meeting of flamenco pop and African tradition featuring Ketama and Toumani Diabate, released in the United States by Hannibal Records.

In a recent interview published posthumously by El País, a national newspaper in Spain, Pacheco called Nuevos Medios “the Motown of Flamenco.” It is a fair claim.

“[Flamenco producer] Ricardo Pachón had already recorded Pata Negra for Polygram,” Pacheco is quoted as saying, downplaying his own role as the champion of Nuevo Flamenco. “What was a big deal was explaining that phenomenon (Nuevo Flamenco) to a payo (non-gypsy), urban, educated audience. It was easy: these were young gypsies who listened to Prince. I used to say that we were the Motown of Flamenco: the Carmona family was the greatest rhythm section, then the sessions might come out as Ketama, La Barbería, Ray Heredia or Aurora. It was something magical. With some hand clapping, cajón (wooden box) and guitar, that thing was already working.”

Maybe it was, but it took Mario Pacheco’s vision and dedication to put it before the world.

Latin CD Review: “Systema Solar”

October 11, 2010

Systema Solar

Systema Solar” (ONErpm)

By Fernando Gonzalez

Post-modernism might be a cool, interesting artistic choice in wealthy cultures, but in Latin America recycling, repurposing, mixing and matching, and generally ignoring stylistic rules is both a way of life and a necessity.

Systema Solar, a Colombian collective that freely mixes hip-hop, rap, and techno with Afro-Colombian grooves, traditional instruments and Colombia’s own ideas about sound systems, is Latin American ersatz post-modernism at its best – razor sharp, and fun.

Formed in late 2006 for a performance at the opening ceremony of the biennial of contemporary art of Medellin in 2007,  the group includes MC John Primera, vocalist Indigo, producer Pellegrino (called the group’s “sonic architect”), DJ Daniboom, VJ Pata de perro (Dogleg) and DJ Corpas.  They call their approach “Berbenáutika,” a made-up definition that alludes to two young traditions on the Caribbean coast of Colombia: the pikós, or Colombian sound systems, which also feature singing, rapping and  live playing; and the verbenas, or street parties in Cartagena and Barraquilla.

The music is an irresistible mix of traditional rhythms such as the cumbia, porro, bullerengue, fandango, champeta (roughly a modern, Colombian reworking of Congolese soukous) and other modern Afro-Pop styles with hip hop, techno, rap and scratching. Add some live VJ, pointed (and often funny) lyrics, and you have, well, a true, moveable verbena.

From the infectious “Bienvenidos” ( no visa? no money? come dance with us ) and the techno-cumbia “Mi kolombia” (a pointed and funny take on the indignities of getting a visa to travel North), to the brilliant “El Majagual” (featuring the traditional gaita, a sort of folk oboe) and “Quién Es El Patron?” (a darkly ironic commentary on the drug culture), this is party music with smarts, purpose and a sense of humor.

To inventory and analyze all the parts would only miss the point of the whole. Well beyond the talk about modernity, tradition and meaningful messages, a big part of Systema Solar´s appeal is its vitality, energy and sense of fun. With a nod to noted philosopher and funkmaster Bootsy Collins, the message here is simple: Free your ass and your mind will follow.

To read more reviews and posts by Fernando Gonzalez click HERE.

Jazz CD: Guillermo Klein’s “Domador de Huellas”

August 20, 2010

Guillermo Klein

Domador de Huellas (Sunnyside)

By Fernando Gonzalez

Argentine pianist and composer Guillermo Klein is at the forefront of global jazz. His music, usually performed by large ensembles, freely draws from jazz, classical music, tango, Argentine rock and folk music. In Domador de Huellas, Klein applies his imagination and craft to the music of  composer Gustavo “Cuchi” Leguizamón, a one-of-a-kind figure in Argentine music: pianist, poet, lawyer, politician and raconteur extraordinaire.  The project actually started as a 2008 commission by fellow pianist and composer Adrian Iaies, artistic director of the Buenos Aires Jazz Festival. It was an inspired choice.

Leguizamón, who died in September 2000, two days before his 83rd birthday,  was a sly sophisticate who loved Bach, Stravinsky and Beethoven but also wrote enormously popular songs in traditional folk styles such as zamba, vidala and chacarera. The songs, which sound easy on the ear, are a model of elegance and astute design. He celebrated the tradition just as he challenged it. And Leguizamón was also a wily storyteller. A couple of live albums (his songs are widely recorded and performed but there is scant record of his own playing) capture him in concert, playing and talking. It’s a mesmerizing act. His speech, now in a conspiratorial whisper drawing his audience in, now leaping wildly to underscore a point, often suggests Monkian contours. It’s music by another means.

Klein, who says that when he got the assignment he knew Leguizamón´s songs without realizing they were his, became a student of his music and pays him the best possible tribute to such a creative free spirit: he takes him up on some of the many musical options his music suggests.  In fact, in some instances Klein has even transcribed the pitches of Leguizamón’s speech and turned them into actual musical text.

There are no clever reharmonizations or jazzified rhythms here. Neither is this a nostalgic folkloric celebration. The traditional rhythms are at best implied and suggested, but only briefly, as if saying that for those who know them implication and suggestion should be enough.  And for those who don’t, well, it doesn’t really matter.  Working with an octet augmented by singers in four tracks, Klein recomposes the music while preserving its spirit. “Maturana,” originally a stately zamba, becomes a brass chorale – preceded by a Schoenbergian solo piano intro. “Carnavalito del Duende,” (the carnavalito is a festive rhythm from Peru, Bolivia and northwest Argentina) takes on a funk bass pattern without losing a step. And Klein practically deconstructs the classic zamba “La Pomeña,” trusting the excellent singer Liliana Herrero, a contemporary folk star in her own right in Argentina, to carry the song while the rest of the ensemble plays off her. And in “Chacarera del Zorro,” Klein’s sing-speech evokes Leguizamón’s angular speech patterns before launching into a forceful, jazz band version of a chacarera rhythm.

True, this is the kind of project that perhaps might be most enjoyed by musically bilingual-bicultural listeners. If you know the originals, you will find yourself smiling more than once. But don´t let that deter you. Ultimately, good music transcends and should stand on its own and Domador de Huellas features songs, arranging and playing at a level of quality that is a joy in any (musical) language.

Jazz CD Review: Keith Jarrett/Charlie Haden “Jasmine”

June 18, 2010

By Fernando Gonzalez

Keith Jarrett / Charlie Haden

Jasmine (ECM)

Back in early 2007, pianist Keith Jarrett agreed to participate in a documentary film about old friend Charlie Haden. The reunion led to some unexpected, informal duet playing (they hadn’t played together in more than 30 years), and the results moved Jarrett to invite Haden back for four days of home recording.

The result is Jasmine (ECM), an intimate, thoughtful, and richly detailed duet recording.  Heard as a whole, these eight love songs play as an intriguing bookend to The Melody At Night With You, another Jarrett home recording released in 1999.

On both, the approach is conversational. The Melody … was a solo record, but in Jasmine the conversation becomes almost literal, given the empathy between Jarrett and Haden. The readings are rather straight forward, although — unlike The Melody…Jasmine features extended soloing. Its points are made with details, nuance, and subtle variations.

Also, intriguingly, The Melody …, a comeback effort of sorts after a bout with chronic fatigue, was dedicated to his then wife, Rose Anne, “Who heard the music, then gave it back to me.”

Keith Jarrett

Then in 2008, by Jarrett’s own account on his notes for last year’s Testament, Rose Anne left him. Jasmine, recorded a few months before her departure, already sounds like a melancholy goodbye. (Jarrett pointed out that it was the third time in four years she’d left him.) The material might be love songs, but rather than romance, or an extended sigh, the result suggests sober meditations on the subject. As it happens, the one track in common between The Night … and Jasmine is Jerome Kern’s “Don’t Ever Leave Me.”

CHarlie Haden

Haden, a partner of Jarrett in the ‘70s in what came to be known as his America quartet, is a solid companion here. His style offers both a sturdy foundation and open space. Be it on purpose or just as a result of their work and talent, great instrumentalists make it sound easy. Haden doesn’t. He plays bass, and if any lifting is involved, it’s heavy, he seems to say. There is labor involved. And regardless the setting, this is also part of his contribution to the music, to its drama and power. Here, in a duet with a probing, high flying pianist, Haden is the anchor, the broad-shouldered backer, offering reassurances and muscle. Check his playing in “Body and Soul.” Without ever calling attention to himself, he paces and shades the whole performance, laying down markers as Jarrett plays the melody, subtly speeding up the pace and finally going into a walk that both follows and nudges Jarrett along. We can all let go, the foundation is covered.

Jarrett offers in Jasmine a thoughtful, restrained lyricism. In his work with his Standards trio, the material feels incidental, a starting point, a floor plan. The actual piece of art is the interaction between the musicians and the act of improvising. In Jasmine, the subject counts.

Consider his almost somber playing on Gordon Jenkins’s “Goodbye,” the extended ruminations on “For All We Know,” or the nuances in the closing “Don’t Ever Leave Me.”

And it’s done with the kind of profound simplicity that takes a lifetime of work to produce.

Jazz CD Review: Ralph Towner and Paolo Fresu

May 15, 2010

Ralph Towner and Paolo Fresu

Chiaroscuro (ECM)

By Fernando Gonzalez

While perhaps best known for his work in the 70s and 80s with the still-occasionally-active group Oregon, guitarist and composer Ralph Towner also has a rich solo career that includes collaborations with Weather Report, Egberto Gismonti, Kenny Wheeler, and Jan Garbarek, among others, and duet projects with Gary Burton, John Abercrombie and Gary Peacock.

Regardless of the setting, Towner has made his mark, both playing and writing, with consistently smart, expressive and elegant work. Here, in trumpeter Paolo Fresu, Towner has a partner with the sensibility, technique and imagination to match.

The material in Chiaroscuro includes old and new music by Towner, a couple of improvisations and the Bill Evans – Miles Davis classic “Blue in Green.”  The pair approaches each piece as a conversation, with seemingly as much emphasis on listening as in playing, taking their time for the music to unfold, leaving open spaces, responding to ideas with ideas. As for timbre variations, Towner and Fresu employ five instruments in all — classical guitar, 12 string guitar and baritone guitar (tuned a fifth below the standard classical), trumpet, and flugelhorn — in various combinations and they make the most of them.

These are players who frame their lyricism in restraint. In their approach, small gestures matter, sound matters.  A quick run, a leap up, a strummed chord on steel strings can become game-changing events. They also know how to create a sense of urgency (check “Punta Giara,” or “Doubled Up”) or uncork spiky, freewheeling improvisations (as in the jagged-edged “Two Miniatures” and the mysterious-sounding “Postlude”).

But the highlights here are “Wistful Thinking,” an example of thoughtful, patient storytelling, and their take on “Blue in Green,” in which Fresu’s approach and vibrato-less tone sound like a fitting tribute to Miles, at once original and evocative. Also, consider tracks such as “Sacred Places,” appearing in two versions — first as a solo piece, with the resonant baritone guitar sounding custom-made for the chorale-like main theme. The second, featuring Fresu, takes on an elegiac quality. (The baritone reappears on “Doubled Up,” the closest to a straight-up jazz piece in the set, with Towner suggesting bass lines and providing rhythmic and harmonic punctuation.)

It might sound like a quaint notion but Chiaroscuro reminds us that, yes, in music such basics as intelligence, great playing and having a story to tell still count.

OpEd Commentary: The Numbers in the Music

May 11, 2010

By Fernando Gonzalez

The recently released Recording Industry in Numbers 2010, the report by the International Federation of Phonographic Industry, the London-based organization that represents record companies, offers a snapshot of the changing state of the business.

Predictably, overall sales numbers declined (at 7% globally) — and the industry sees piracy as the most important and dangerous challenge. But perhaps the most intriguing news here is the confirmation, in hard numbers, of a changing business, one in which physical sales are going the way of the 8-track and digital sales continue to grow (9.2%, or U$ 4.3 billion, ten times the value in 2004) although not enough yet to compensate for other losses.

In discussing piracy, the report notes the positive impact of legislation to combat piracy.

In a recent interview in his offices in Miami, Raul Vazquez,  IFPI Latin America’s Regional Director, said “The impact of digital piracy is much graver than the physical piracy — but the solution is much easier. It’s graver because it impacts the natural consumer of music be it of digital or physical product. That’s not the case with the physical piracy. But solving should be easier. The biggest obstacle [to solve digital piracy] is the lack of cooperation by the service providers and the lack of will by the governments.”

Susan Boyle

Here are some facts from the report.

- It’s notable that in the music sales chart the number one seller reflects the power of … television.  Susan Boyle’s I Dreamed a Dream was the best global selling album of 2009. It sold 8.3 million copies. It’s hard to begrudge her success. She can sing – and it looks as though many of us still like a good Cinderella update.

Michael Jackson

- The rest of IFPI’s Top Ten list includes #2 Black Eyed Peas (The End) , Michael Jackson (thrice, with #3 This is It, #8 Thriller and #9 Number Ones,  confirming that, in pop music, death continues to be a great career move), #4 Taylor Swift (Fearless), #5 Lady Gaga (The Fame), #6 Michael Bublé (Crazy Love), #7 U2 (No Line on the Horizon) and #10 Andrea Bocelli (My Christmas) .

- Global sales for 2009 declined by 7.2% to US$17 billion. The United States and Japan, the world’s two biggest markets, account for 80% of the decline. In the rest of the world, the fall was 3.2%.  But in Latin America, digital music sales nearly offset the loses in physical sales. In that region the decline was only of 0.7 %.

- Physical sales dropped by 12.7% globally.

- Digital sales rose by 9.2% to US$4.3 billion, more than ten times the digital market value in 2004.

- In the United States, digital sales account for nearly half (43% ) of the recorded music market.

- More  than 30 countries experienced double-digit growth rates in digital sales. And in 17 of those markets – including Argentina, Australia, Austria, Denmark, Finland, Singapore, Sweden and UK –  digital sales grew by more than 40%.

-There are now more than 12 million tracks available from over 400 legal music services worldwide.

- Contradicting popular belief, the reports notes that “Growth in live music revenues (up 4%) has slowed significantly in the last three years.”

- Also, according to IFPI, “Peer-to-peer (P2P) piracy remains the most prevalent channel for illegal distribution of unauthorized content, accounting for more than 20% of internet traffic globally. In Latin America this increases to 35% and in Europe to 29%.”

For more info check

Jazz CD Review: Tord Gustavsen Ensemble “Restored, Returned”

March 4, 2010

Tord Gustavsen Ensemble

Restored, Returned (ECM)

By Fernando Gonzalez

Perhaps, as the saying goes, you can’t be too rich or too thin. As for everything else, you can have too much of a good thing. Restored, Returned, the latest recording by Norwegian pianist and composer Tord Gustavsen is a case in point.

Gustavsen established his reputation with a remarkable trilogy of piano trio recordings – Changing Places (2003), The Ground (2004), and Being There (2007), all on ECM. In those discs, his playing and his writing brim with intelligence and elegance. His is a music of deceptive simplicity. The pieces often suggest ambiguous short stories told in whispers, paced and shaped by nuance and details. It’s a music that depends as much on what is said as to what is implied, and requires from the performers as much smart listening and interplay as technical ability. Not surprisingly, Gustavsen worked on those recordings with the same partners, Harald Johnsen, acoustic bass, and Jarle Vesperstad, drums.

But for  Restored, Returned, Gustavsen expanded the group, adding a vocalist and a saxophonist. Given his esthetics, it’s an interesting, and risky, move.

Having a voice and a saxophone — both melodic and leading instruments in jazz — necessitates a change in the architecture of the music. And words, even if drawn from the elusive poetry of  W.H. Auden, offer, literally and figuratively, a text and with it, a well-defined foreground and background, as well as certain conditions for the arranging and the playing.

Most of the 11 tracks on Restored, Returned, are lullaby-like pieces set at a slow to medium tempo and treated with the pianist’s patented gospel-influenced touch.  Four songs have lyrics from Auden’s “Another Times,” others include wordless vocals, and there also are a few instrumentals.

Rather than jazz or pop tunes the tracks with lyrics suggest art songs, and vocalist Kristin Asbjornsen interprets them with a theatrical, melodramatic flair.  She has a clear tone with a raspy edge that evokes at times a young Ricky Lee Jones, and her singing in the country hymn-like “Lay Your Sleeping Head, My Love,” is at once sensual and distant. In the title track, Asbjornsen paces her performance beautifully, singing the opening verses over a minimal, rubato accompaniment, a high wire artist doing her act above a void. As the song takes on a hymn-like quality and rises, so does her singing, suggesting both strength and fragility.

On instrumental pieces such as “Spiral Song,” “Your Crooked Heart” and ”The Gaze,”, Gustavsen’ group — Tore Brunborg, tenor and soprano sax, Mats Eilertsen, acoustic bass, and Vespestad, on drums – often evokes Keith Jarrett’s European Quartet, especially given saxophonist Jan Garbarek’s obvious influence on Brunborg’s tone and approach.

There is much to be enjoyed in Restored, Returned. But the sameness in the moods and tempos brings diminishing returns. And there is a point here where smart becomes precious and then, as a listener, you are just hoping for an explosion, a mistake, a goof, something perhaps utterly meaningless, but fun. Beauty in  Restored, Returned is so perfectly constructed as to make it airless and as such, uninhabitable.

Who knew, maybe you can be too rich.

The Tord Gustavsen Ensemble is coming to the United States for two concerts: March 28th at the San Francisco Jazz Festival and March 31st at Merkin Concert Hall in NYC.

For video excerpts from a November 2009 performance, an interview with Gustavsen about the project and other info check

CD Review Jazz: Omar Sosa & the NDR Big Band

February 22, 2010

Omar Sosa & the NDR Big Band

Ceremony (Ota)

By Fernando Gonzalez

Cuban pianist, percussionist, composer and arranger Omar Sosa has a distinct musical vision: a pan-African sound that connects African and neo-African cultures in Europe and the New World. Over nearly the past two decades, Sosa has pursued it with remarkable clarity and consistency, freely drawing along the way from the culture, and the work of musicians, from places as disparate as North Africa, Cuba, and Ecuador, Paris and Oakland. A prolific artist, his work has already yielded 22 discs (and counting) to his name, including recordings of solo piano, duets, small groups and large ensembles.

The recently released Ceremony, is yet another different setting for Sosa and his music. Here he is featured with his regular group and the NDR Big Band (NDR stands for Norddeutscher Rundfunk or North German Radio ).  The material, all but two pieces a reworking of music from Sosa´s Spirit of the Roots (1998), Bembón (2000), and Afreecanos (2008), was translated for big band and directed by Brazilian cellist, arranger and conductor Jaques Morelenbaum.  The results sound rich but lacking.

A practitioner of  the Yoruba-rooted religion known in North America as Santería, Sosa has at times set up his programs like musical services, roughly following the structure of a religious ritual.  Echoing the set up of Spirits of the Roots in Ceremony, Sosa opens and closes the set with salutes to Elegba, the deity that in the Yoruba pantheon is the messenger, the trickster, the guardian of the crossroads. The rest of the tracks include both references to other Santería deities (and the rhythms associated with them) as well as nods to secular Cuban music styles such as the cha cha cha, the danzón, and the son.

For all its intensity and complexities, Sosa´s music, especially his ensemble music, usually has an open feeling, and a lightness that seems to set it airborne at the gentlest push. The music in Ceremony does take flight at times, but the image is of a big cargo plane going up laboriously. Morelenbaum, who has collaborated with major artists including Tom Jobim, Caetano Veloso, Milton Nascimento, Egberto Gismonti and Riuychi Sakamoto, assigns the vocals in Sosa´s original versions to instrumental sections. It´s a logical solution, but as a result the music not only takes on a different, darker hue but also gains heft. Also, Sosa´s ensemble works are rowdy, untidy affairs, but brimming with vitality and humor. The NDR provides more precision than fire. They do what they do very well. But there is more to this music than what’s on the page.

“Danzón de tus Ojos,” titled “Antes de ir va Esto” in Spirit of the Roots, is a case in point. It´s an elegant, sober and light danzón in its original version. Here, in a shorter version,  it starts with a Vegas-sized orchestral exclamation point and a mournful cello melody, leading to a grander, heavier, and darker version. And in its big band translation “Luz en el Cielo” loses the spaciousness and gossamer quality of  “Light in the Sky, ” the Afreecanos version.  Rather than suggesting a certain open-air mystery, “Luz ..” feels urban and nocturnal and a tad too muscular. (Although it also does feature a beautifully paced solo by Sosa).

Similarly on  “Changó en Esmeraldas”  (“Fabriciano con Changó”), “Yemaya en Agua Larga,” (“Agua Larga Pa’ Yemaya”) and “Carambabá”  (“It’s My Head”)  — all pieces from Spirit of the Roots that make explicit connections between Afro-Ecuadorian religion in Esmeraldas, Ecuador, and Afro-Cuban Santeria — the brass adaptations of the original vocals results in  heavier, denser textures.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the best fit between music and band is on “Monkuru,”  an updating of “Remember Monk” from Spirit of the Roots. This version deviates from the original, but here the more familiar (jazz) language elicits very strong ensemble and solo playing and the results are satisfying on their own right.

Still, to prefer earlier, non-big band versions of this pieces does not mean dismissing Ceremony. Sosa’s music is rich, his soloing is elegant, soulful and smartly structured terrific throughout, and this is an all around well-arranged and well-played recording.

But if this is your first encounter with Sosa’s music be aware that there is a lot more in this music than these charts and these performances reveal. In his album notes, Sosa pays tribute to Mario Bauzá, Machito, Chico O’ Farrill, Bebo and Chucho Valdés, Chano Pozo, and Dizzy Gillespie, among others. There is a grand tradition of big bands in Afro-Cuban jazz. If Sosa decides this is another piece of his pan-African puzzle, it shouldn’t surprise anyone if – perhaps in a future album — he finds his own vocabulary and shakes up the big band sound.

The instruments change but the vision remains — and he has found his own sound before.

To see a video illustrating the production of “Ceremony,” click here.


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