Live Jazz: Omar Sosa at Auditorio Conde Duque in the XXVIII Festival Jazz Madrid

December 2, 2011

By Fernando Gonzalez

Madrid.  A concert by Cuban pianist Omar Sosa suggests, at different times, an ever-changing combination of musical event, performance art, and religious ceremony.

His solo show at the lovely new Auditorio Conde Duque in Madrid, on Tuesday, as part of the XXVIII Festival Jazz Madrid, certainly had plenty of those elements.  But what made it memorable was Sosa’s willingness to follow his creative whims, take chances without a net, and offer the full house what felt like a living room performance, warts and all.

“I had a list of pieces I was going to play,” he said at a break, well into the evening, showing as proof a sheaf of white pages hidden in the acoustic piano. “But at the end, I ended up playing whatever I felt like,” he said sheepishly. “I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did.”

Sitting before an acoustic and an electric piano and aided by a battery of electronic devices that he manipulated on the fly with pedals, Sosa drew the tone, if not strictly the material, from his album Calma. It was hard to recognize particular pieces, which were improvised to begin with – here, one sounded like “Aguas,” a bit there seemed from “Dance of Reflection.”  At best, they were more like points of departure than attempts at strict readings. But Calma did set the mood. (“We’re all going too fast. We need to take a breath, calm down, and catch up with ourselves,” said Sosa at one point.)

This was music of open spaces, reflective, of moods rather than unfolding stories. His vocabulary at times evoked the Impressionists and the Romantics via Ryuichi Sakamoto – with richer technical flourishes. Only in a couple of instances did Sosa break the mood, once to play an energetic montuno (his only direct reference to Afro Cuban music), the other to set a groove and launch a pre-taped voice loop.

Overall, it was like being privy to an exceptional musician’s thinking-out loud session. This is clearly not something recommended for everyone.  But Omar Sosa has the technique and imagination, and the good nature, to pull it off with grace. On Tuesday, for the most part, it worked.

Photo by Shinya Watabe.

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

Jazz With An Accent: Miami Before the Sound Machine

August 12, 2011

By Fernando Gonzalez

DJ Le Spam, aka Andrew Yeomanson, led a fascinating listening session of Miami vinyl last night at the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami. Not sure how many people outside Miami are aware that back in the 1970s, and before, well before there was a Gloria and Emilio Estefan or a Miami Sound Machine, there was the legendary Henry Stone’s TK Records, and a soulful Miami sound.

DJ Le Spam (Andrew Yeomanson)

Yeomanson played some rare vinyl, both LPs and 45s, featuring music by artists such as Betty Wright, George McCrae, Timmy Thomas, and Clarence Reid, but also non TK artists such as The Spiritual Harmonizers and the, umm, idiosyncratic Lang Cook.

Stone, now in his 90s, once told me “TK was the Motown of the South. ”  I was new in Miami and at first dismissed it as hype. He wasn’t braggin’.  As they say in baseball, you can look it up.

Or in this case, listen. For starters check the DJ Le Spam website.   And if you are, or plan to be, in the Miami area, check the Museum of Contemporary Art’s Moca By Moonlight.

Jazz With An Accent: A New Release, Coming Attractions and Better-Late-Than-Never

August 10, 2011

By Fernando Gonzalez

A New Release

Silvano Monasterios

Unconditional (Savant)

It might strike as a paradox, but sometimes the brilliance of certain inventions can be measured by how obvious, how commonplace they seem.

The music of Venezuelan pianist Silvano Monasterios is so easy-on-the-ear, so elegantly structured, and has such a casual, lived-in feel that it takes a bit to catch on to how sophisticated his work truly is. It’s only after awhile that one  notices the harmonic turns, the storytelling soloing, or his rhythmic vocabulary, especially his discreet use of traditional Venezuelan styles.

Unconditional is Monasterios’ fourth album, and his choices suggest that he feels no need to accommodate any conventional expectations about how Latin jazz should sound. Whatever someone might argue to be some essence of “Latin,” is here integrated into the overall sound. To list the parts is to miss the whole – and, one suspects, Monasterios’ intentions.

Leading a limber, efficient quintet — Troy Roberts, sax; Jon Dadurka, bass; Rodolfo Zuñiga, drums; and José Gregorio Hernández, percussion – Monasterios offers fusion with an accent, richly detailed, lyrical, and remarkably cliché-free.  Often, he explicitly draws on Venezuelan folk rhythms as the basis of a piece.  In “Sno’ Peas,” for example, he uses gaita zuliana, a rhythm original of the Zulia state which is danced at Christmas time.  The slow swinging  “Black Saint” draws from the traditional drumming for San Benito, a black saint.  He just as easily sets up a passage of straight ahead, driving swing for release or uses a Fender Rhodes to evoke a certain era. Or he might go all in the other direction and set up a straight-ahead hard-driving blowing vehicle such “Forgotten Gods;” or, as in the title track, write a classic jazz ballad in which the melody unfurls unhurriedly before the soloists take over and elaborate, telling their own stories.

The eight pieces in Unconditional are originals by Monasterios and, throughout, there is an arranger’s ear at work in the attention to detail, be it regarding song forms, the structuring of the soloing or the use of unexpected rhythmic shifts. In Monasterios’ music, fun and beauty unfold with a purpose – and jazz becomes an inch wider and deeper.

Check out his website – Silvano Monasterios – to find out more about this remarkable artist.

 * * * * * * * * * *

 Coming Attractions

 *            Trumpeter and conguero Jerry González debuts with his new Madrid-based quartet on the eponymous Jerry González y el Comando de la Clave (Sunnyside). The release date for is August 30th.

Miguel Zenon

*          The new recording by Puerto Rican saxophonist Miguel Zenón, Alma Adentro (Marsalis Music)  features his update of ten classic songs, two by each Bobby Capó, Tite Curet Alonso, Pedro Flores, Rafael Hernandez, and Sylvia Rexach whom he aptly calls “the George Gershwins, Cole Porters and Jerome Kerns of Puerto Rican song.” It features his quartet plus a wind ensemble orchestrated by Argentine bandleader and long time friend Guillermo Klein. The release date is August 30th.

*            Navidad de Los Andes (Andean Christmas, ECM) by bandoneonist Dino Saluzzi, cellist Anja Lechner, and saxophonist Felix Saluzzi will be released September 20th. Lechner and Dino Saluzzi have been collaborating since the mid 1990s (Kultrum, Ojos Negros, El Encuentro).

 * * * * * * * * * *

 Better-Late-Than–Never . . .

Released in the United States in April, Norwegian trumpeter Mathias Eick’s Skala (ECM) is a follow up of sorts to his 2008 release, The Door (ECM). It’s a larger ensemble and a broader palette, but size is not the point. What’s striking here is Eick’s pop approach in his writing (the sing-songy, catchy melodies often reinforce the notion of instrumental songs waiting for lyrics), the overall, often aggressive, driving energy, and the production (he gets co-producer credits).

The musical references in Skala are quite disparate. The beautiful, expansive title track, a wordless song that builds on Eick’s short, elegiac trumpet phrases and a muscular Jan Garbarek-influenced tenor solo by Tore Brunborg, turns out to have been influenced by Sting’s “Shape of My Heart.” And “Oslo,” which features two drummers churning a dense storm underneath, suggests Radiohead or late 70s Brian Eno exploding to a (sort of) go-go beat. And then Eick openly tips his hat to Joni Mitchell in the very un-Mitchell-like “Joni.”

Skala blurs the lines between jazz, the austere esthetics of ECM, and avant-pop – and each in its own way is better off for it.

CD Reviews: Machito, Bobby Sanabria, Arturo O’Farrill, Pedro Giraudo

July 20, 2011

Big Band with a Latin Accent,Then & Now.

By Fernando Gonzalez

El Padrino (Fania/Codigo)


The big band occupies a special place in Latin Jazz history. For starters, in the 1940s and ‘50s, the orchestras led by Tito Puente, Tito Rodríguez and Machito, the real life Mambo Kings, not only defined a certain sound, putting jazz instrumentation, harmonies and improvisation to true Afro-Caribbean grooves, but also seemed to bring out the whole country to the dance floor.

A lot has happened since.

Those classic bands remain the high water mark in Afro-Caribbean jazz.  But the term Latin Jazz has regained its true meaning,  encompassing a broader, truly Pan American sound.

The two-disc compilation El Padrino  revisits the work of Frank “Machito” Grillo and his exceptional band The Afro-Cubans. Anchored by friend and his brother-in-law,  saxophonist Mario Bauzá, an essential figure in the development of Latin Jazz, Machito and His Afro-Cuban blended sophisticated jazz arrangements and improvisations over authentic Afro-Cuban rhythms.  The results were explosive.

Collections such as El Padrino are samplers, conditioned by available recordings, licensing issues, and the curator´s taste. That said, the music here is a treat.  Fittingly, the set opens with “Tanga,” a Bauzá composition considered the first Latin jazz piece,  and goes from there. It includes fine examples of the band in full flight (check “Wild Jungle,” “Cannonology,” featuring Cannonball Adderley, Ray Santos’ Latinized blues “Azulito,” or “Mambo a la Savoy,” for starters).  And it also showcases the woefully underrated singer Graciela Pérez — Machito´s foster sister, better known simply as Graciela. Recognized as an interpreter of ballads, her work on El Padrino offers a good argument for reconsidering her standing as a big band singer, contributing a sense of swing and a certain cheeky sassiness (check “Si Si No No”) to the music. The collection also includes tracks with Marcelino Guerra (“El Guardia con El Tolete”), and flutist Herbie Mann (“Brazilian Soft Shoe,” “Love Chant”).

Cooly riding this beast of a band was Machito, front man, maraquero (maracas player) extraordinaire, and a singer with an expressive, caramel toned voice and impeccable sense of time.  Decades after it was a originally played and recorded, Machito’s music has lost none of its power and grace.

Tito Puente Masterworks Live (Jazzheads)

Manhattan School of Music Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra, Conducted by Bobby Sanabria

Timbalero, composer, and bandleader Tito Puente once built an explosive orchestra that became one of the friendly competitors of Machito’s band at the now legendary Palladium Ballroom on West 53rd St. and Broadway.  Leading a big band of students at the Manhattan School of Music, drummer, percussionist and educator Bobby Sanabria celebrates Puente’s work in Tito Puente’s Masterworks Live.

The repertoire nods to Afro-Cuban religious music (“Elegua Changó”),  some classics (“Picadillo,” “Ran Kan Kan,” “Cuban Nightmare,” but not “Oye Como Va”),  and a couple of jazz standards (Oscar Pettiford’s “Bohemia After Dark,” “Autumn Leaves”).

While most of the arrangements in this recording are reconstructed from Puente’s original versions, as Sanabria explicitly points out in the album notes, “the performances here are not nostalgic.”  Instead, he and his charges update Puente’s sound while going for the precision and excitement of his bands. That’s not only a worthy tribute to the past, but also a celebration of the future of this music.

40 Acres and a Burro (Zoho)

Arturo O’Farrill & The Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra

Pianist and composer Arturo O’Farrill has held together the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra for more than three years after losing its home base at Jazz at Lincoln Center. Better yet, O’Farrill and the orchestra have continued to push and grow, exploring beyond Afro Cuban music while consistently producing rich, valuable work.

In 40 Acres and a Burro, O’Farrill smartly explores rumba (the explosive “Rumba Urbana”) and Puerto Rican bomba (in the knotty, angular “A Wise Latina,” written to honor Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor).  He looks into Brazilian choro (Pixinguinha’s “Um a Zero” in a fine arrangement by Nailor Proveta — leader of the excellent Banda Mantiqueira – featuring superb playing by Paquito D’Rivera on clarinet).  There’s also Afro-Peruvian festejo (“El Sur”), modern tango (Astor Piazzolla’s “Tanguango”, turned here into a tart, urgent New Yorker tango),  an Afro-Latin-Celtic piece (“She Moves Through The Fair”) and a couple of classics, the bolero “Almendra” and  Dizzy’s “A Night In Tunisia.”

Not surprisingly, O’Farrill and the band sound at once precise and loose-fitting. There is brilliant ensemble playing and soloing and, most engaging, they also sound fearless. They can even transmute anger and pointed  social commentary into sly fun — just check the title track.

Córdoba (Zoho)

Pedro Giraudo Jazz Orchestra

While O’Farrill’s adventurous big band Latin Jazz takes Afro-Caribbean rhythms as a point of departure, New York based bassist and composer Pedro Giraudo anchors his music on traditional styles of his native Argentina.  Córdoba — titled after the Mediterranean city, and a province in Argentina where Giraudo was born — is his  fifth album as a leader and shows an increasingly sure hand both in writing and arranging.

The approach here is orchestral, not merely tutti intros plus solos over the rhythm section and splashes of big band writing.  Rather, Giraudo uses sectional call and response, contrapuntal textures, tempo changes, and a muscular use of the rhythm section. There’s a reason why his press material speak of Charles Mingus, Carla Bley, and Duke Ellington as influences.

As foundation, Giraudo uses traditional rural Argentine styles — the slow, blues-like baguala,  the zamba,  and the chacarera. This is big band Latin Jazz with a different, fresh  accent.

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.


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