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.

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 Review: Ania Dąbrowska’s Dla Naiwnych Marzycieli

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by Ernest Barteldes

 

As I have written in earlier posts, I stumbled into the music of Polish pop singer Ania Dąbrowska quite by accident – I was looking into something I can’t even remember and her name sort of popped up. I got curious and found out she is from Chełm, , the southern Polish city my wife also comes from.

During our recent visit to my wife’s homeland, we visited several stores looking for music to bring back home (sure, I could have used iTunes for some titles but prices for regular CDs are much better there), so during a stop at the local Empik  I picked up a few of Dabrowska’s first few releases and proceeded to check them out. I was impressed with how she seems to want to surprise listeners from time to time with interesting arrangements that include bass solos (she does play the instrument, but the liners don’t give us much information on that matter),  flutes and other instruments that you don’t often come across in pop albums.

After we came back home I purchased the MP3 version of her sixth release, Dla Naiwnych Marzycieli, and gave it a few spins.  Though I haven’t heard all of her albums yet, I can say this is arguably her best album yet. She has veered a bit from the retro feel of earlier efforts and embraced a more contemporary direction – that can be felt immediately on the opening track, “Nieprawda,” a keyboard-led reggae with a catchy hook that gets you moving from the start, and also on “Gdy Nic Nie Muszę,” a jazz-inflected tune led by brush drums, keyboards and woodwinds.

Other notable tracks include “Bez Chiebe,” an R&B-inspired ballad with multi-layered vocals and a nice guitar-centered arrangement and “I’m Trying to Fight It,” the sole English-language track on the disc, whose lyrics speak about the hardships of moving on after the end of a breakup. The piano-based title track has poignant vocals, and “Nie Patrzę” sounds like something that could be played in American Top 40 radio – but good.

The lead single on the album is the power ballad “W Głowie” – its accompanying video plays as  a short action movie in which she escapes a couple of assassins inside what seems to be a shopping mall parking lot with the help of a mysterious black man – most of her videos play like that, telling the story in an almost cinematic manner.

Dąbrowska is a singer worth checking out. She has clearly evolved since her early Polish Idol days (I read somewhere that she has appeared on her country’s version of The Voice as a judge, but I didn’t have a chance to see an episode while I was there). Her music is smart and quite engaging – even if like me, you don’t have a clue what she is singing about.

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:

 

CD/DVD Review: George Fest

By Ernest Barteldes

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When I first heard about George Fest, I thought it was really great idea: bring together a new generation of rock performers (alongside a handful of more established ones) to take stabs at George Harrison’s canon to younger fans who might not even had been around when Harrison released his final hit records in the late 80s.

 

I recall receiving an e-mail from a publicist about the release of the concert film and CD from the 2014 tribute show in Los Angeles shorty before its release , but due to my workload at the time it kind of fell through the cracks and it only came back to my mind when I caught the end of the film on MTV – when the entire ensemble ran through The Traveling Wilburys’ “Handle with Care.” I was intrigued and ordered the box from the New York Public Library (no, I don’t do Netflix) and sat down to listen to it as soon as it came in.

It was a fun show to watch, but I felt that the musicians could have been a bit more inventive with the music.  After all, these were bands like The Flaming Lips (who took on “It’s All Too Much,” and oft-overlooked track from “Yellow Submarine”) and members of The Strokes, Heart, Spoon and other bands. However, with few exceptions they played most of the tunes a bit too closely to the original arrangements, sounding more like cover bands than they should have.

There were, however, some brilliant moments: San Francisco’s Black Rebel Motorcycle Club took on “The Art of Dying (from “All Things Must Pass”) and slowed it down, playing with distorted guitars and deadpan vocals that better translated the tune’s mood than Harrison’s overproduced version. Norah Jones (who also did “Something”) took advantage of the country feel of “Behind the Locked Door” to make the tune her own with a soulful vocal delivery and her own acoustic guitar accompaniment. The Cult’s Ian Astbury gives a chillingly beautiful take on “Be Here Now,” an obscure track from “Living in the Material World.”

The deeper cuts were the best surprise here – while standards like “My Sweet Lord” (with an honest delivery from Brian Wilson) and “Taxman” (by The Cold War Kids) were on the set list, we also got to hear seldom-heard tunes like “Savoy Truffle” (Dhani Harrison, who sounds and looks too much like his father) and “Any Road” (from George’s last album, “Brainwashed”). But there were a few missed opportunities – for instance, why have ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic do a straight version of “What is Life” when he could have amused us with “This Song is Just Six Words Long,”  his hilarious parody of “I’ve Got My Mind Set on You” instead?

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One could say such a rendition would offend hardcore George Harrison fans, but then again that was not even a Harrison composition in the first place, but a cover of an obscure track originally recorded in the early 60s by African-American R&B singer James Ray (go ahead, Google it).  The tune, incidentally, is also on the set, played by the numbers by The Killers’ Brandon Flowers.
I am not in any way going to say it is a bad album – it is nice to hear all these young artists take on this music of my favorite Beatle with such gusto, but as I have said earlier, I would have liked if more of them had tried to be more inventive with the tunes, just as George himself did whenever he played live. You pay tribute not by imitating but by reinventing the music – and giving it your own take.

Capsule Reviews: John Basile. Calixto Oviedo, Ivete Sangalo & Criollo

By Ernest Barteldes

I know it’s been a while since I posted any  new disc reviews – during the summer I pretty much refrain from doing that because I am either out there attending concerts (reviewing either here or for All About Jazz), so when Labor Day comes along there is a pile of neglected records begging to be heard and reviewed.

Now years ago I would have had a number of outlets to write in-depth reviews of these wonderful works, but considering that way too many publications have either disappeared or hired so-called “music editors” who think they are the last bottle of Coca-Cola in the desert, I have created this labor of love in which I bring you some of the music that I have heard and appreciated.

Since summer is over and that means that I won’t be heading to concerts as often, I would like to offer you a selection of recordings that were released in the last few weeks and that I think deserve to be checked out. This is not in any specific order of preference – check them out:

A picture of a street sign for Liverpool’s most famous street greets you on John Basile’s Penny Lane (Self-released) ,a jazz tribute to the works of the Fab Four. Kicking off with the symphonic “Eleanor Rigby,” Basile works through some of the Beatles’ deep cuts while finding a new way to improvise around hits like “Can’t Buy me Love” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” the latter of which sounds nothing like what was played at the Ed Sullivan Theater thanks to the creativity around the arrangements. Sadly, Basile pulled a Sinatra and credited “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” to Lennon/McCartney – I am assuming this was a typo since it is one of George Harrison’s most beloved and well-known songs after “Something”.

I first heard master drummer Calixto Oviedo at the Jazz Standard a couple of years ago, and was impressed by his creativity and dexterity, as you can see from a review I published on All About Jazz when he was in town as part of the New Dimensions in Jazz program, which continues to showcase new voices in Latin jazz.  We have stayed in touch on social media since then, and he was nice enough to send me a copy of his “Cuban Train: Como Suena,” which is like a party to the ears.  I expected to hear more traditional material, but here he expands the music into various directions, going from modern jazz to more traditional material

Last year Renata and I attended a free show in Fortaleza in tribute to the late singer-songwriter Tim Maia. The concert was part of a national tour sponsored by Nivea (the popular cosmetic brand) that featured singers Ivete Sangalo and Criollo, who did their own takes on the music, often sharing duets. I was not able to review that show because there was a large crowd and it was just impossible to take notes there.  The duo also released a studio album (I was hoping for a live DVD or something, but that has yet to materialize) with some of the songs included on the tour.  Among the most notable are Criollo’s take on “Chocolate” (a hit for Marisa Monte – I am assuming that is why Sangalo did not carry that one), which has a nice R&B feel, and “Corone Antonio Bento,” a song with strong northeastern Brazilian roots. The disc does a very good job of bringing Maia’s music to younger generations.

Album Review: Badi Assad/Hatched

By Ernest Barteldes

I’ve been following Badi Assad for about fifteen years, from the time she was doing more avant-garde instrumental-oriented music right into her shift into the pop-jazz-fusion material she started putting on her records, going from 2005’s Verde up to Hatched (QuatroVentos),  in which she reinvents pop hits in her own way – the tunes are still recognizable, but her personal imprint combined with her signature acoustic guitar chops – are undeniable.

It was fortunate that I was oblivious of most of the tunes on the disc so I could appreciate the music without any bias, approaching them from a completely fresh point of view. She kicks off with Mumford & Sons’ “Little Lion Man” with a bossa-nova vibe that contrasts to the much faster paced original.  She transforms “The Hanging Tree” (from the Hunger Games soundtrack) into an acoustic funk that showcases her guitar and vocal chops, leaving the original recording as floundered Joe Cocker did to The Beatles on “With a Little Help From My Friends.”

My favorite recreation was her take on Lorde’s “Royals” – Assad plays it double tempo, with Simone Sou’s strong percussion as a backdrop to the Assad’s fluid guitar and Rui Barossi’s upright bass.

I am looking forward to catching this material in a live format. The last time I saw her perform was during the Verde tour, when she played accompanied solely by her guitar – it was great, but I would love to see her stretching it live with a band behind her.

Not that she needs it at all – she is highly engaging on her own.

If you happen to live anywhere near where she’s touring, do not miss the opportunity to hear her live. I have already told my friends in Fortaleza – the only major Brazilian city she is playing in at the time of this writing – to go to the show.

And a note to my readers in Chicago – the publication there that I have contributed there for over a decade has a new music editor who thinks he is the last Coca-Cola in the desert. He is doing the usual house cleaning that commonly comes with change in the masthead, so you will not be seeing my byline there for a while. The solution? Subscribe to my feed, because I have not forgotten you.