Album reviews: Putumayo’s “Cuba Cuba,” Hendrik Meurkens & Roger Davidson’s “Oração Para Amanhã,” MUH Trio’s “Prague After Dark” and Anna Maria Jopek’s “Haiku”

by Ernest Barteldes

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On this Putumayo release, contemporary and more traditional Cuban music come together to form this comprehensive collection of the music of the country whose music has been a global reference in spite of the controversial political issues that have kept  both countries at odds for so long.

The collection opens with Soneros de Verdad’s “A Buena Vista,” a lively tribute to the success of the collective that has had reached global success, and sets the tone for the rest of the album. We delve in the past a bit with Al Valdes’ “Guajira,” an uptempo instrumental recorded in Peru in the mid-sixties that has since become legendary, showing strains of American jazz and other sounds that would later be explored by  groups like Irakere, which at one time featured Arturo Sandoval, Chucho Valdes and Paquito D’ Rivera (which sadly are not featured on this compilation, in band form or solo). Other highlights include a new rendition of “Chan Chan” – arguably Buena Vista Social Club’s best-known tune, and Jose Conde’s “Puente a Mi Gente,” a 2004 tune that reached out to his people on the island (he was born in Miami), hoping for a better connection between the US and his ancestral land.

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Pianist  Roger Davidson and German-born harmonica player/vibist Hendrik Meurkens both have a close relationship with the music of Brazil, and it’s a thrill to hear them coming together for “Oração Para Amanhã (Soundbrush), a live recording made at New York’s Zinc Bar featuring all-original music by Davidson. Backed by Eduardo Belo (bass) and Adriano Santos (drums), the disc kicks off with “September Samba,” an uptempo tune featuring Muerkens on vibes. Muerkens then goes to his harmonica to lead on “Sonho da Tarde,” a complex tune with a low-key feel .  “Oração Para Amanhã” is definitely a love letter to Brazil, and both musicians treat the music with the respect it deserves, using American jazz tendencies to enhance the sound, but never to take it away from where it belongs.

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“Prague After Dark” (JMood Records) came to me all the way from Italy via Facebook friend and pianist Roberto Magris. Recorded in The Czech Republic with his MUH Trio (Magris, Frantisek Uhlir: bass; Jaromir Helesic: drums), it is a highly enjoyable straight-ahead album featuring mostly original music penned by all three members of the trio. I particularly enjoyed “Nenazvana,” an uptempo tune by Uhlir with a samba feel that features an extended solo from its writer. Also notable are “Iraqi Blues,” which takes a more serious tone in what is mostly an upbeat album, and the inspired cover of “Love in Vain.” Make sure to check it out, it’s rare when music like this reaches the other side of the pond.

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Also hailing from Central Europe is Polish singer Anna Maria Jopek, whose Japanese-inspired “Haiku” (independently released) finally got to my hands. Originally released in 2013 alongside her Luso-inspired “Sobremesa” and her Polish folk song dedicated “Polanna” (it could be purchased as a box set as well, but I have never seen it in stores – and I looked hard during my last visit to Poland), it is a collaboration with pianist Makoto Ozone that delves both in more traditional music and pretty hard jazz.  It closes the trilogy well – it is a well-thought record that explores a lot of nuances between Polish and Japanese music – including the kind of jazz played in both countries these days. On an interview I conducted with her a few years back, she stated that “We recorded the “Haiku” album with a Polish-Japanese band lineup in just four hours, as if we were spirited.” Quite impressive results, I should say.

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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

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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.

Ernest’s Annual Christmas Music Roundup: Putumayo’s “Latin Christmas” and Bibi Ferreira’s “Natal em Familia”

By Ernest Barteldes

This is of course the time of year when you cannot walk into a store anywhere in the nation without hearing the familiar chimes of sleigh bells and the cheerful melodies of tunes like “The Christmas Song,” “O Holy Night,” “Winter Wonderland” (which I think does not qualify as a Christmas song in the first place)” to questionable hits like “Please Daddy Don’t Get Drunk” or “Last Christmas.”

It is also the time when everyone from Celine Dion to Ann-Margret attempt to give their own take on the music of the season – and it’s not only about artists desperate for the spotlight but many who don’t actually need it: for instance, all four Beatles released Christmas music during their solo careers (the worst being Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime” and the best John’s “Merry Xmas – War Is Over”), and Queen did a Christmas single at the height of their fame (the dreadful “Thank God It’s Christmas”).

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As someone who writes about music, I am usually inundated with new Holiday-themed albums starting from as early as July (one year I got one before Memorial Day) but things were slower this time around – I guess the gods of music realized that my time has been a bit limited for this stuff, and from the ones I did get, here are two that I do highly recommend.

The first one is Putumayo Presents Latin Christmas, a highly enjoyable album because it doesn’t really sound like a Christmas album in the first place: it opens with a bossa version of “Joy to The World” performed by Arizona-based cover band Nossa Bossa Nova, a group that has adapted everything from the Rolling Stones to Bob Marley into bossas – some with pretty good results. My favorites, however, were the tunes that went completely outside the box. Poncho Sanchez offers a swinging n Afro-Cuban take on “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” that gets you immediately moving, while UK-based Dave Stephens offers a bolero-inflected instrumental take on “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”

Also notable are “El Año Viejo,” a cumbia celebrating the birth of the new year and also Susie Antoli’s s “La Peregrinacion,” a gentle Argentinean ballad that narrates the biblical story in which Mary and Joseph tried to find a place to sleep at the end of their journey to Bethlehem.

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Bibi Ferreira is one of Brazil’s greatest living legends – at 94 years of age as of this writing, she is actively performing throughout the Americas and Europe while still finding time to go into the studio to record new music.

Natal em Familia” (originally released in Brazil in 2012) brings together many traditional mostly performed as duets. The album kicks off with “Sinos de Belém” (Jingle Bells) done in an American Gospel/jazz style featuring samba singer Alcione and plenty of improvised instrumental solos from her touring band. Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Estrada do Sol” is a bit unexpected for this album but it ultimately makes sense since the lyrics speak of hope for better days to come. “Um Novo Tempo” is a Marcos Valle/Paulo Sergio Valle/Nelson Motta composition that was for many years used as Globo TV’s Holiday theme, but here it receives a more serious treatment as a more devotional feel featuring the voices of Ferreira, Joyce Candido, Ana Cristina and Mayra Freitas.

There are a few throwaways – it’s hard to understand why anyone thought having Ferreira and former kiddie show host Xuxa Meneghel duet on “Vem Que Vai Chegando o Natal” (Santa Claus is Coming to Town) would be a good idea, and it’s pretty cringe-worthy even if it has a nice swinging jazz backbeat. Also the late Emilio Santiago;s vocal chops are under-used in the beautiful ballad “Feliz Natal” – he had such a great range but here is reduced to singing in unison with Ferreira.

Other notable tracks are Schubert’s “Oh Noite Santa” (Oh Holy Night) performed by opera singer Max Wilson and of course the beautiful duet that Ferreira and pop singer Ronnie Von do on Schubert’s Ave Maria – gives you goose bumps even after repeated hearings.

Music Review: “Fio da Memoria” by Luisa Maita

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By Ernest Barteldes

Six years is a long time to wait between albums for a new artist, but Sao Paulo-born Luisa Maita seemed to have made the right choice in this case.  Since the release of her much acclaimed debut album Lero Lero (Cumbancha), she did a lot of touring (including many stateside appearances), collaborated with various Brazilian musicians and collected various awards in recognition of that first album.

The formula of Lero-Lero was quite simple: a modern take on bossa and samba-inspired tunes with a creative edge.  When I heard that album, she reminded me a bit of Marisa Monte, who does a lot of experimentalism with her music but keeps a firm grip on more traditional beats.  She could have simply stayed the course and done more of that, but she clearly decided to go into a completely different direction with her second album.

Fio da Memoria” is more of a rock-fusion album:  distorted guitars are front and center, but the rhythm is pure Brazil. For instance, “Olé” has a lot of electronics going on, but the percussion is clearly influenced by the sounds of Northeastern Brazil, while “Porão” has a Maracatu feel. The title track is a refreshing electric samba (close to the work of +2 , the leaderless music collective formed by Moreno Veloso, Kassin and Domenico Lanceloti), while “Folia” is pure Bahia samba, with a full percussive group behind Maita’s voice – and little else.

“Fio da Memoria” takes a few plays to totally sink in – though most of it is fun to listen to, it is also music that makes you think thanks to its clever arrangements and the way the instruments are played – there are quite a few surprises as the music plays. An example of this is “Volta,” a tune that begins with layered vocals and a curious line –  until the drums come in behind a three-part harmony  that take you into a 70s-influenced slow funk.

In a year filled with so much music that made little sense, “Fio da Memoria” is quite refreshing – the music is both smart and enjoyable, and makes this one of the best World Music releases of 2016.

 

Single Review: Karar by Duke Guillaume

By Ernest Barteldes

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    “Karar” by Duke Guillaume

For those familiar with saxophonist and bandleader Duke Guillaume’s devotional work both as a solo artist and with The Metropolitan Big Band, this single is quite a departure. “Karar” seems to draw inspiration from the sonic mix more closely identified with South Florida, blending electronics with classic jazz and Latin-esque sensibilities (which probably explains the cover, which pictures the musician embracing the sun and the beach), tending to follow more a dance vibe than trying to sound too improvisational

While the main melody keeps on a straight dance beat, things get quite interesting in the chorus, where a Latin samba-reggae mood kicks in, taking you away from Florida and more into the streets of Bahia, where the Afro-inspired drums play as the crowds follow them through the narrow streets of the Historical District every Tuesday night. I also felt a bit of Puerto Rico’s reggaeton into the mix – a beat that has yet to be explored by jazz musicians.

You can check out the track below:

 

Disc review: Trio da Paz “30”

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By Ernest Barteldes

 

Guitarist Romero Lubambo, drummer Duduka Da Fonseca and bassist Nilson Matta are all accomplished bandleaders in their own right, but when they get together as Trio da Paz there is clearly some extra musical magic going on.  The three musicians have fantastic chemistry together, and that can be heard not only on a live format but also in the studio.

The group began via informal rehearsals the three musicians did together before officially creating Trio da Paz, which now celebrates its 30th anniversary with 30 (Zoho), a record containing mostly original material written individually by Lubambo, Da Fonseca and Matta. The album kicks off with “Sampa 67,” a Matta composition that honors the city of the bassist’s birth (not to be confused by the similarly titled Caetano Veloso tune).  The track is centered on the bass and drums with guitar riffs.  They revisit Lubambo’s “For Donato,” a tune played around a bassline that is reminiscent of Dorival Caymmi’s “Samba da Minha Terra” but then goes into a completely different direction.

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The song was previously recorded by its composer on 2002’s Rio de Janeiro Underground, but here the arrangement is markedly faster than the original recording, focusing on all three band members.  Also revisited is Da Fonseca’s “Flying Over Rio,” a song previously featured on the drummer’s quintet album “Samba Jazz (Anzic, 2013). The Trio da Paz version is more stripped down, focusing on Lubambo’s nuanced guitar playing.

 

The trio also pays tribute to the late master guitarist Baden Powell with a cover of his “Samba Triste,” here played as an antithesis of its title – instead of being a “sad samba,” it appears as an up-tempo melody that showcases the band members’ individual chops.  It is notable that Lubambo recorded a handful of tracks using electric guitar (something I have never heard him doing with Trio da Paz) – “Outono, “a slow bossa that features a melodious solo from Matta, and also the aforementioned “Flying Over Rio.”

As someone who has seen this trio perform live many times in the past decade, I cannot wait to hear how they will treat these tunes on stage. I have been in awe of their music ever since I heard them for the first time at the Jazz Standard in 2005, and I hope they stick around for a very long time.