Monika Brodka: My 2017 Polish Music Discovery

By Ernest Barteldes

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Brodka (publicity)

Shortly before my last trip to Poland last September (where I attended a wedding and spent a few days exploring Chelm, I had a chat with one of my students and told her how much I admired the work of singers like Anna Maria Jopek and Ania Dąbrowska, and she recommended I check out Monika Brodka, who she described as “really innovative.”

I looked her up and learned that like Dąbrowska, she was an alumna of the popular “Idol” franchise, having won the competition during the 2004 season. She was quickly signed by Sony/BMG and made two very pop-friendly  discs (Album and Moje Piosenki, released in 2004 and 2006) under the production of Bogdan Kondracki (who also produced Dąbrowska’s first three albums).

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“Album” and “Moje Piosenki”

I found both albums at Chelm’s Empik in a two-in-one package labeled “Made in Poland,” apparently part of a series meant to promote the country’s pop-rock artists. Among my favorite tracks from those are a mellow cover of Kris Kristofferson’s “Let Me Make It through the Night” (from “Album) and “Glock” (from “Moje Piosenki”), which showcase her vocal potential and also her ability to make a song her own.

Although very enjoyable, neither album stands out – possibly because of Kondracki’s very mainstream sounding production that made them sound almost undistinguishable from Dąbrowska’s first two discs or anything else he touched during that era. Brodka’s albums were nevertheless well received and are still on regular rotation on Polish radio stations like RMF and Eska.

Brodka took a considerable break from making studio recordings and re-emerged in 2010 with Granda, (“Brawl”), an 11-song masterpiece which is incredibly different from anything she’d done before, with nods to electronica and jazz without losing touch with a more pop-rock feel. It is quite adventurous and goes into various directions. The title track is a punk-ish rocker with a pounding bass and some extraneous background sounds, while “Saute” seems to revisit the psychedelic era without sounding dated.

In between albums she released the EP LAX” (which is simply a reference to Los Angeles, where the tracks were recorded), which contained “Varsovie,” a haunting English-language ode to her adopted hometown.

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Clashes

2016’s “Clashes” took things to an even more experimental direction – since she is now signed to an independent label, she has more freedom to do what she wants without having to compromise to whatever the suits might want her to do.  I believe that she is aware of the shock value of the music and of course her looks – like performing with a shaved head.

“Clashes” is not easy listening – there are clear influences from Bjὄrk, the post-punk sounds of Patti Smith and others I have not been able to identify – it’s a disc that has to grow on you after repeated hearings.

Check out “Clashes” here

 

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What to Hear in August: BRIC Celebrate Brooklyn, Bryant Park, Brasil Summerfest, SummerStage and Charlie Parker Jazz Festival

By Ernest Barteldes

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I kind of hate the month of August, because that is when most of the outdoor events begin winding down – Celebrate Brooklyn wraps halfway through the month, while SummerStage continues hosting free shows until pretty much the end of the month, capping the program with the Charlie Parker Jazz Festival in Harlem and the East Village, the locales of reference for the annual event in honor of one of the heroes of the bebop era.

For those who missed it in theaters (and still haven’t watched it at home), Creed tells the story of Donnie Johnson – the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed – who goes after his own dream of becoming a champion boxer. To help him on his quest, he seeks the help of an aging Rocky Balboa to become his coach –  possibly closing the Rocky saga. The movie will be screened with a live score performed by The Wordless Music Orchestra conducted by its composer Ludwig Gorannson. Opening the evening is a selection of Gospel music by Frank Haye & The Interdenominational Choir – should be a good one and I will certainly be in attendance (Celebrate Brooklyn, Aug. 4)

Things take a Brazilian flavor at Summerstage with the kickoff of Brazil Summerfest, a weeklong event that showcases various  talents from my other country: legendary singer Elza Soares – still unstoppable at 80 – headlines an afternoon at Central Park that also features Youtube-discovered Linkner e os Caramelows and a DJ set by Teleseen. During the following week there will be concerts in various venues featuring Forro in the Dark (Brooklyn Public Library, August 9).  Aline Muniz (Joe’s Pub, August 10), Zabele ( The Django, August 13) and many others, ending with a massive Brazilian-inspired street fair  (Hester Street Fair, August 14) .

Bryant Park continues its summer program with a concert by the Asian Cultural Symphony to the US – an ensemble of more than 60 musicians, followed by Shoko Nagal’s TOKALA, which explores sonic influences from classic and contemporary Asian sounds (August 11, Bryant Park)

Most people know about Senegalese singer-songwriter Youssou N’ Dour from his iconic tune “7 Seconds,” but  he is beloved among World Music lovers – he has a long career that includes many records and countless collaborations with artists from across the globe – a fitting closing to what has been a stellar run at Celebrate Brooklyn (August 12, Celebrate Brooklyn)

Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo’ are blues legends in their own right, and I cannot wait to hear how they sound as they join forces – it is sure going to be a meeting of generations and it is a show I am sure not to miss under any circumstance – just imagine how much great music will come from those two together on stage. (Central Park, August 13)

I have heard Anat Cohen in various formats both as a side player with Duduka Da Fonseca with her two brothers in their Three Cohens ensemble  and also leading her own chorinho-inspired group. She is a phenomenal clarinetist and at The Charlie Parker Jazz Festival she will be leading her Tenet in a program that will include her many influences, going from Brazilian to Middle Eastern and some New Orleans material in between (Marcus Garvey Park, August 25)

We wrap up the list with quite a stellar line-up of saxophonists: Joshua Redman, Lou Donaldson and Tia Fuller will close the Charlie Parker Jazz Festival – one can’t help but wonder if they will get together at the end of the day for an improvisational threesome. It might be unlikely, but one can only hope — and then we go over to Labor Day with a nice taste of great music (August 27, Tompkins Square Park)

The Weekend in Music: Accordion Festival at Bryant Park & Evelyn “Champagne” King at SummerStage at Corporal Thompson Park

Accordion Festival

Bryant Park

July 21, 2017

New York, NY

 

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Accordion Festival:  Osnelda

We arrived at Midtown Manhattan as Queens-based Sunnyside Social Club took to the stage doing a collection of New Orleans-inspired music that went in several directions, going from street band to funk, with the bass sounds performed by their tuba player.  The music was very up-tempo, and got the audience moving to its sound… until Brazil’s Osnelda came on with their celebration of  Forro, the syncopated Northeastern Brazilian dance music.

The band started off with a mostly instrumental piece called “Chora Sanfona,” which set the tone for their set – immediately many in attendance got to their feet and began dancing as dust clouds rose into the warm evening air. They followed the tune with a mid-tempo take on Caetano Veloso’s “Cajuina,” a song originally recorded in the 1970s in a much slower tempo.

The musicians had very good chemistry together, and the music flowed effortlessly.  They blended newer music – Including an original by bandleader Felipe Hostins – with classics that included Dominginhos’ “Forro No Escuro” and Jackson do Pandeiro’s “A-E-I-O-U-Y,” the latter being a tune that is included in pretty much every classic forro set in Brazil.

In between sets, host accordionist Rachelle Gamez, who would offer tidbits on the history of the instrument being celebrated that evening. She sometimes went a bit long with the talking and playing, but it was effective and entertaining.

Osnelda was followed by  Zlatni Balkan Zvuk, a group that played Balkan-style music in a lineup that included violin, percussion, keyboards and accordions. While they were obviously good musicians, the band sounded unrehearsed at times, since they didn’t seem to lock in very well. A guest vocalist was brought in and they started to sound better – I guess they were more comfortable with backing a singer than doing instrumentals.

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Accordion Festival: Gregorio Uribe

The evening concluded with Colombian musician Gregorio Uribe, who took the stage backed by a three-piece band (bass, percussion, keys).  He was well-received by the large Latin audience (many in Colombia soccer jerseys) who got up and danced along with his mix of Latin beats, including cumbia and salsa.  He sang with a firm voice and many of his tunes carried a social message – including one clearly aimed at the current American president.

The group sounded great, especially when guest singer Carolina Oliveros joined in – she has a strong, emotional voice and brought much soul to the group. The set ended with a great homage to their native Colombia, whose Independence Day was being celebrated at the event.

Evelyn “Champagne” King +

Fascination and DJ Joey Carvello

SummerStage at Corporal Thompson Park

Saturday, July 22nd

Staten Island, NY

 

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Fascination at SummerStage

Disco was the flavor of the evening at SummerStage on Staten Island’s Corporate Thompson Park – a large green area named after fallen Vietnam war marine Lawrence Thompson as DJ Joey Carvello, a pioneer of the disco area, spun tunes from the genre’s heyday, mixing hits from groups like Kool & The Gang and also deeper cuts I did not recognize.

The opener was 90s freestyle singer Fascination, a singer who has clearly seen better days: she sang not behind a backing track but by her actual tracks – her younger voice could clearly be heard as she screamed over them. At one point t was painful to watch her pretend to be a 20-year-old on stage with her mini-dress and utterly unconvincing sensual dance moves. Looking around me it was obvious the crowd was puzzled with what was going on.

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Evelyn “Champagne” King at SummerStage

After a brief break Evelyn “Champagne” King came on, with one of her earlier hits and then broke into an old-school rap. She greeted the audience warmly, and talked about her career beginnings as a teenager and then acknowledged her age by stating she was a “proud 57” and admitted she was “going through the sweats” at present.

King carried on with “Betcha She Don’t Love You,” a 1982 single in which the protagonist confronts a cheating lover and followed with “Love Come Down,” one of her best-known hits. She then brought out her guitarist husband Freddie Fox for a cut from her 2007 album “Open Book.” The tune had more of a contemporary R&B sound, far removed from the dance flavor of the other selections.

The evening closed with “Shame,” another of King’s major hits. Her voice is in incredible shape, and she was able to connect with the audience – many of whom probably hadn’t been born when most of the songs came out. It was a highly enjoyable set, which coincidentally ended as rain began to pour – refreshing all of us from the heat.

SummerStage in Central Park: Chicano Batman & Los Pericos at LAMC

by Ernest Barteldes

Chicano Batman + Los Pericos

LAMC at Summerstage in Central Park

July 15, 2017

 

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Chicano Batman

Los Angeles-based Chicano Batman came on stage with their Psychedelic-inspired sound, complete with Mellotron-based tunes and a look more suited to Ed Sullivan circa 1968 then Central Park in 2017, but I guess that is the message they want to convey. Though mostly a quartet, they were often enhanced by a pair of backing vocalists – one whom took over the keyboards when lead singer Eduardo Arenas either stepped away from the mic to sing lead or played guitar.

I half expected this edition of the LAMC to be a bit political given the current divisions in the United States, but was surprised that no one spoke of walls or anything related to the current president in this country: it was all about the music and little else. The band instead took the opportunity to showcase as many of their influences as possible, including a Cumbia-inflected tune and a ranchera in which the bassist took over the guitar while Arenas took over the bass guitar.

Chicano Batman has great chemistry together, but it seems they are not yet ready to play large stages like Rumsey Playfield.  There is no doubt about their talent – their instrumental moments were quite great – but they seemed a bit overwhelmed about being before a numerous audience like the ones often seen there – I guess we are looking at diamonds in the rough, and would be happy to learn they’ve evolved in coming years.

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Los Pericos

After a short break, Argentina’s Los Pericos brought a mix of funk and reggae with a Latin take – I felt they were very influenced by Brazil’s Paralamas do Sucesso – that got the audience moving from the moment they played their first chord.  They had great energy and effectively communicated with the crowd by calling on the different nationalities represented there.

Los Pericos has been around for three decades, and their set reflected that experience: the music went from disco-inflected moments to salsa and various other rhythms while never losing touch with their original influences. Since there were many in the audience who had probably never heard of them, the band jam-packed their set with their best material so people could know what they were about.  A handful of their tunes were in English – with lyrics that either talked about heartbreak or romantic defiance – but most were in their native Spanish.

It was a wonderful afternoon – I just wish the weather on Friday had been a bit better so I could have caught the showcase at Celebrate Brooklyn the previous night – it would have made for a much better musical experience.

What to hear in July: Summerstage, BRIC Celebrate Brooklyn and Bryant Park

By Ernest Barteldes

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Esperanza Spalding – July 30 at Celebrate Brooklyn

July is one of the busiest months in the summer outdoor concert schedule here in New York, and I am one who fully enjoys this – First of all, the Latin Alternative Conference comes to town, bringing tons of Latin talent both to Celebrate Brooklyn and Summerstage (plus many other venues – it’s a music smorgasbord for sure), so things get even more interesting.  Not only that, the public pools are also open so there is a lot to do even if you want to spend the hot days in a lazier fashion.

As I did before, I am only highlighting the free shows, since the ticketed benefit concerts are either sold out or have their own publicity machine behind them – it’s not like they need the likes of me.  For detailed times and locations please refer to the hyperlinks included here.

Things kick off on July 1st in Central Park with a celebration of French and American jazz with a lineup that simply doesn’t feel enough for a single evening, including gypsy guitar virtuoso Stephane Wrembel,  upcoming jazz/pop singer Kat Edmonson and singer Catherine Russell alongside bandleader extraordinaire Vince Giordano. It should be one hell of the night which as usual I am missing because I have plans out of town.

Over at Celebrate Brooklyn Musiq Soulchild does free concert on July 7th – he is regarded as one of the best soul singers of his generation and deserves it – his delivery is fantastic and so is his performance – I expect it to be packed that night.

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Jimmy Heath

On July 8th jazz great Jimmy Heath heads to Queens with his big band – the man has played with the likes of John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis (to name a few) and is still here to tell the tale. Look forward to lots of bebop but also contemporary and straight-ahead jazz.

Those not willing to head all the way to Queens that night might want to check out New York’s own Mariachi Flor de Toloache and cumbia queen Totó La Momposina in Central Park. I heard the former during an LAMC concert at Celebrate Brooklyn  few years back – from what I remember it was a lively concert that paid tribute to the traditions of the music of their native Mexico but also looked ahead, using  complex vocal arrangements a few tunes in English; some songs were played with the addition of the cajón and also the ukulele, which both enhanced the songs and gave them an intriguing, innovative sound.

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Mon Laferte

The LAMC kicks off on July 12 in Central Park with Puerto Rico’s ÌFÉ, New York’s own Princess Nokia (an interesting use for the virtually defunct cellphone brand, no?) and Chile’s Mon Laferte, a self-taught powerhouse of a musician who blends electronic, rock and R&B in her own unique manner – her video for “Amarrame” (feat, Juanez) is on heavy rotation on Latin music channels (I happened to catch it while vacationing in the Dominican Republic a few weeks ago), and I really want to see how this translates in a live format

The late Fela Kuti is celebrated in music and theater for his contribution to what became the Afrobeat movement, and his legacy is being memorialized on July 16 in a concert  that brings together his son Seun Kuti and Roy Ayers, one of the elder Kuti’s many collaborators during his career and beyond – Ayers is one of the godfathers of the neo-soul movement and a highly respected artist in his own right.

I can’t remember the last time I heard Mali’s Amadou & Mariam on stage – I recall it was at Summerstage about a decade ago when I was still writing for the now-defunct Global Rhythm and New York Press. They are a married blind duo who play their own brand of African blues, and have this magical sound to them. It will be good to catch them again after all this time in Brooklyn on July 21st

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Accordion Festival 

On the same day, The Accordion Festival – closing up the Accordions Around The World program happening in Bryant Park – takes place, with tens of players over a five-hour period. Something for those who want to hang in midtown Manhattan and have a good time.

During her tragically brief career, Amy Winehouse left us a memorable canon of songs over two albums (only one released in the US market) and (as far as I know) a single guest appearance – her last recording – on Tony Bennett’s Duets II album. Her music is certainly remembered, and will be the basis for the program developed by BalletX / YY Dance Company on July 26 in Central Park.

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Andrew Bird

The month closes in Brooklyn (July 30)  with two of my favorite young musicians: multi-instrumentalist, whistler and vocalist Andrew Bird, who I discovered in a completely unusual way: on the soundtrack of the 2011 Muppets movie, Towards the end of the movie, newcomer Walter did a surprise performance of “The Whistling Caruso” – which was actually played by Bird.

The other favorite is Esperanza Spalding, the genre-bending bassist who began her career doing avant-garde jazz and then went on to make extremely diverse albums that explored a variety of sounds, going from straight-ahead jazz, soul and more recently Emily’s D+Evolution (Concord), an experiment that blends musical theater, jazz, funk and much more – something that some fans heralded and others failed to fully comprehend (me being the latter) – when she first emerged, Spalding was a breath of fresh air in the jazz world, and continues to evolve throughout the years – I can only imagine what she is going to bring to the fore this time.

Album reviews: Nouvelle Vague’s “I Could Be Happy” and Laura Cheadle’s “Chill” EP

By Ernest Barteldes

I first discovered Nouvelle Vague about a decade ago, when someone handed me a copy of 2006’s Bande a Part, an album which contained very creative treatments of tunes like U2’s “Pride – In The Name of Love” in a a samba-bossa groove and Billy Idol’s “Dancing With Myself” in what could be described as a tongue-in-cheek dance feel.

I have followed them since even though I seem to miss them every time they perform Stateside, this year being no exception. I love the way they recreate the covers they record in a manner that is almost incomparable – tunes feel completely different than the original, and you don’t have that feeling of “why cover this one?” since they have that original feel even if the song is amazingly familiar.

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Such is the case of I Could Be Happy, the first to contain original material by Olivier Libaux and Marc Colin, the band’s longtime leaders. The Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Sedated” is played in sleepy down tempo beat reminiscent of the Beatles’ “I’m Only Sleeping” that gives the lyrics new meaning – gone is the rebellious feel of the original and instead is that feeling of someone who simply doesn’t want to get out of bed. Also notable is Richard Bell’s “Love Comes in Spurts,” reinvented here as an electronic ballad that deeply contrasts with the original’s punk arrangement.

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Among the independent artists that get our attention, New Jersey-based Laura Cheadle is one of the most frequent – basically because she has great passion on a live setting, is a gifted songwriter and also because she is fortunate enough have a live band mostly formed by her family members – all gifted musicians in her own right.

Cheadle’s new (download-only) EP entitled Chill kicks off with “Conversations in My Mind,” a soul-tinged tune whose lyrics question the narrator’s judgments about her own life. It has a simple but catchy melodic groove and a nice hook that stays in your head for quite some time. Also notable is “See The World With Me,” a gentle ballad about living life beyond the everyday grind.

I also enjoyed the treatment she gave to the cover of the Supremes’ “You Can’t Hurry Love.” While the original (which Phil Collins pretty much copies) was about warning young girls about falling in love too easily, her down-tempo version sends a different message: here is a love-worn woman who is about to give up on finding someone – anyone – but realizes that the best things in life take time even if it breaks your heart every single time.

Though I enjoy hear her on record, the best way to enjoy her music on a live format – those in New York can confirm what am talking about at Piano’s on April 15th – an awesome way to drown out those tax-day sorrows in anticipation of Easter Sunday – or Passover.  Or just another Sunday.

Music Reviews: The Rolling Stones’ Blue and Lonesome + Putumayo Presentsa

By Ernest Barteldes

The Rolling Stones

Blue and Lonesome

Polydor

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As any fan of the Rolling Stones knows by heart by now, the band started out as mostly a blues band – like the Yardbirds, Alexis Korner and other contemporaries, they fed on the American music and went from there. That is quite evident from their self-titled debut album, which relied heavily on covers; including “Route 66” and Willie Dixon’s “I Just Want to Make Love to You” (this was before they recorded Lennon-McCartney’s “I Wanna Be Your Man”).

Though they would often include blues themes in their subsequent records, they never really did a blues album until now. According to the liner notes on Blue and Lonesome, the idea came while they hit a snag while recording an original tune in December 2015 and decided to “clean the palate” with a rendition of Walter Jacobs’ “Blue and Lonesome,” and the idea was planted.  The band played live in the studio with wild abandon, almost sounding like a bunch of 20-year-olds as they went along.  In the studio next door was Eric Clapton, who was invited to contribute on a few tracks, and by the end of only three days the album was done.

The band – augmented by session musicians Darryl Jones (bass), Chuck Leavell (keyboards) and Matt Clifford (Wurlitzer) delivered one heck of disc – they sound energized and clearly happy to be doing this.  Jagger’s harp is second nature to him as well as his trademark voice.  Clapton contributed to “Everybody Knows About My Good Thing” and “I Can’t Quit You Baby,” but he was subtle, mostly adding to Keith Richards’ lead guitar and doing his best to stay out of the way – you can hear this clearly on the latter, when you hear Richards on the left and Clapton on the right, both with their distinctive sound.

This is the essence of the Stones masterfully doing what they studied deeply for years and throughout their careers, not some opportunistic rock band trying to sell records by taking on the blues and failing miserably – examples abound out there without me having to name names.

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Putumayo Presents: African Rumba

Various Artists

Putumayo

 

When Angelique Kidjo took to the stage at Celebrate Brooklyn in the summer of 2016 for her Celia Cruz tribute, she stated that when she was in her native Benin, there were two artists that had superstar status:  The Queen of Salsa and James Brown – but she also said that Latin artists were highly respected, especially in the western part of the African continent.

As the liner notes of Putumayo Presents: African Rumba state, “in the 1930s a Cuban song called ‘El Manicero’ (The Peanut Vendor) became a worldwide hit reaching even in the heart of Africa The Ensuing popularity of Latin music and dance styles like the rumba, mambo and cha cha cha, which evolved into salsa, had a powerful effect on African music throughout the 1970s.”

“Latin music was so popular in Africa,” the notes add, “that when a 1974 concert featuring an array of international stars was organized in what was then Zaire, it wasn’t James Brown or B.B. King who filled the stadium but Cuba’s Celia Cruz and salsa star Johnny Pacheco who elicited the greatest response.”

This is quite evident in this Putumayo compilation that brings together music recorded   over the span of four decades, which shows how Latin influence shaped the music in that continent. Kicking off with “Aminata,” a duet by Cuban pianist Harold Lopez-Nussa and Senegalese bassist/singer Alline Wade recorded in 2015. The roots of the song are clearly African, but the beat and general feel is purely Cuban.  The same can be felt with Michel Pinheiro’s African Salsa Orchestra. A native of Benin, he found success later in life (he was a farmer for a long spell) in Abidjan, in The Ivory Coast. His “Paysan” has a slower tempo than most of the tunes on the disc, but it is very soulful thanks to his heartfelt vocal delivery.

Ricardo Lemvo and Makina Loka were also supposed to appear at Celebrate Brooklyn in the summer of 2016, but the concert was cancelled for unknown reasons. A native of Congo based in Los Angeles, his music has a stronger Central African influence (especially on the guitars and percussion) with more low-key acoustic arrangements that focus more on the vocals and beat – perfect to dance while still enjoying the music, as can be heard on “Tata Masamba.”

Also notable is the earliest tracks in the collection – Orchestre OK Jazz’s “Micorasson,” which is basically misspelled  “Mi Corazón”  (“My Love”) dates from 1956 – the year Elvis made his first recordings for RCA.  The interesting thing is that they sing in phonetic Spanish even though none of them spoke the language but you can hear how hard they try – even if they slip in some of their native words.

This is a great introduction to a genre few Americans – except maybe for a die-hard World Music Fan – have ever been exposed to, and a fantastic starting point for those who want to get to know these musicians better.