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.

Bluesy Christmas: Laura Cheadle’s “Ill Have a Blues Christmas” and Sheryl Crow’s “I’ll Be Home For Christmas”

By Ernest Barteldes

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Move over, “Santa Baby,” the song made famous by the late, great Eartha Kitt in which the singer hits on Santa Claus – you are not the sexiest Christmas song ever anymore. That title now belongs to Laura Cheadle‘s “Giving You Me For Christmas,” a driving blues with provocative lyrics about being ready to be unwrapped under the Christmas tree that is part of her  self-released “I’ll Have a Blues Christmas,” and album that blends original tunes with Holiday classics like “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”  and “The First Noel.”

Other highlights of the disc include “Red Ain’t Everything,” which tells  Rudolph’s story from his own point of view, and a live rendition of “Here Comes Santa Claus” (there is no information of where it was recorded, but the audience sounds responsive and enthusiastic).  It is a strong disc thanks to the well-written arrangements and solid musical chemistry that Cheadle has with her family, who is present on every track.

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Speaking of blues, I recently discovered Sheryl Crow’s own Christmas record “Home for Christmas” (A&M), which is highly influenced by the sounds of Memphis. Recorded in the same era as her “100 Miles from Memphis,”  it contains mostly covers of classics like “White Christmas”  and “O Holy Night”  with a solid backing from a tight brass-heavy band featuring none other than Booker T (of the MGs), one of the key figures of the Memphis sound throughout the 1960s and 70s. I was surprised that I had never even heard about that disc for years – one of the last from her now-former label.

Among the best tracks are “The Christmas song,” played with a Jorge Benjor-like flavor. “Blue Christmas” has a nice backbeat focused on the rhythm section, great horn solos and of course Crow’s sultry voice. The inclusion of Crow’s “All Through the Night” (a track from ” 100 Miles from Memphis” ) seems a bit out of place on the collection, but it closes the album with a funky feel.

In Honor of B.B. King’s 90th Birthday: Live at The Regal

By Ernest Barteldes

On what would have been the late B.B. King’s 90th birthday, I tuned into Brazilian radio station Educadora FM (from Salvador, Bahia), which was doing a special broadcast in honor of  King, who passed away last May at the age of 89.

The record that the station chose to mark the date was Live at The Regal, an album recorded in Chicago in November 1964 and released the following year and became not only one of King’s most revered discs but also one of the most influential blues albums ever, cited by guitarists such as Eric Clapton and John Mayer, to name a few.

I was only able to hear part of the broadcast (I was on the Staten Island Ferry, which has a spotty WI-FI at times), but was immediately intrigued by it. I had certainly heard it before, but somehow it was not part of my personal collection – which I remedied as soon as I got a chance.

What we hear on Live at the Regal is B.B. King at top form playing songs that have since become classics. After a brief introduction, the album kicks off with “Every Day I Have the Blues” and going right into “Sweet Little Angel.”  The band behind him (rounded out by Leo Lauchie on bass,  Duke Jethro on piano,  Sonny Freeman on drums plus Bobby Forte and Johnny Board  on tenor saxophone) is sharp as ever, giving him the perfect backdrop for his unmistakable playing style. Songs like “Please Love Me”  and “Woke Up This Morning” have a fiery quality to them, and tunes like “How Blue Can You Get?”  have great response from the audience.

This was King’s first live album, which introduced him to larger audiences – he was already called “King of The Blues” back then, but the legend would grow as young folks discovered American blues across the pond via the likes of The Yardbirds and The Rolling Stones, who revered American blues even as many white Americans mostly ignored the genre.

The only thing that bothered me a bit was the sound editing – the ending of “Worry, Worry” is cut abruptly to give way to “Woke up This Morning,”  and the second introduction (which I assume to be the beginning of side B on the vinyl edition) jumps into “You Upset Me Baby”  – you can almost hear the click on the tape recorder.

I am hoping someone finds the source tapes to this recording (not at the Regal – the theater was demolished in 1973) and do a real nice remaster of this album – it certainly deserves it

At the Frank Sinatra Centennial Exhibit/New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

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By Ernest Barteldes

I cannot say that growing up I was much of a Frank Sinatra fan. Sure, I’d watched movies like Anchors Aweigh and On The Town (both with Gene Kelly) on TV but at 12 I had no idea that the old man singing on the TV broadcast of his show at Rio de Janeiro’s Maracanã soccer stadium was the same guy who sang about the Bronx being up and the Battery down in a sailor’s outfit. I believe I was first exposed to Frank Sinatra through my mom, but his music never really reached me until many years later when I heard about his 1992 Duets album, in which he shared the spotlight with the likes of Bono, Gloria Estefan, Aretha Franklin and Luther Vandross. I remember marveling about how timeless these tunes sounded – that impression was further settled with Duets II a couple of years later, even though his voice was clearly tired as he struggled to continue relentlessly touring into his late 70s.

I didn’t really “get” Sinatra until I listened closely to his 1967 collaboration with Brazilian maestro Antonio Carlos Jobim.  It was then that I started to really hear how he carefully phrased each word and gave it a unique feel that few of his contemporaries – and all the standards singers that came after him – were able to match. That was confirmed as I listened to many of his re-releases, including his brilliant albums with Count Basie and Quincy Jones.

So it was with great anticipation that I went to the New York Public Library’s Sinatra exhibit, which was put together with the support of the Grammy Foundation and Sinatra’s family to celebrate his upcoming centennial, and I must say I was not at all disappointed. The show was divided between four sections, going from his youth all the way to his final days, when he sang his last notes at a show in California. IMG_1376 The first room comprises his growing up in Hoboken, New Jersey – there is a facsimile of a train with black and white images of his hometown going by, a door from his parents’ pub and other memorabilia, including an excerpt from his first radio appearance with the Hoboken Four (his first vocal group) and some personal effects of the era, including the ukulele he played to woo his first wife, Nancy. The second part of the exhibit is dedicated to his early movie career, with clips from the films mentioned earlier and his first Academy Award, earned for the short film “The Land I Live In.”  To me, the best pieces of memorabilia were the shoes he and Kelly wore on “Take Me Out to The Ballgame”. IMG_1378 The third room focuses on his Capitol and Reprise years along with his later films all the way to his final TV appearance as a grumpy old detective on the CBS show Magnum, PI.  There were a couple of interactive opportunities – a mixing board allowed visitors to “remix” one of his songs (I got rid of the orchestra, stripping down the music to bass, piano, guitar and drums)  and also a jukebox with a selection of his greatest hits. A whole part is dedicated to Sinatra’s longtime admiration and friendship with Ella Fitzgerald – his specials with her are shown on video, and one of the dresses she wore is on display.  It is also mentioned that there were plans to record a duet album, but that it never came together because of schedule conflicts. There is, of course, a whole section dedicated to the Rat Pack – but not with as much reverence as the part dedicated to Fitzgerald.

The final and most emotional part is dedicated to his later years – his paintings, his close relationship with his family (one small t-shirt had the words “My grandpa is Ol’ Blue Eyes”), golf clubs and personalized jackets. Towards the end of the show there was a booth in which amateur singers could record a “duet” with Sinatra and then finally one of his best late-career shows at the Concert for the Americas, featuring master guitarist Tony Mottola on a fantastic rendition of Jobim’s “Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars.”

The exhibit mostly glosses over Sinatra’s troubled relationships with Ava Gardner and Mia Farrow (they are present on the timelines on the walls) and there is no reference to his alleged mob ties and his political leanings. They do mention his support to Civil Rights causes, but the show is mostly about the artist, not the man – save for the final part.

I must say it was quite an emotional experience going through the whole thing, right from feeling the “rumble” of the wheels of the train that got Sinatra out of Hoboken, his albums and especially the videos featuring his son (who worked as musical director for his orchestra during Sinatra’s final decade) Frank Sinatra, Jr, his daughter Nancy Sinatra and his granddaughter Angela Lambert, who discusses Frank’s paintings. The exhibit answered the question I had from the moment I walked in: would it do justice to the man and his music? It certainly does, and it is something I am glad to have seen.