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.

Live Review: Anuhea at The Highline Ballroom, March 18, 2017

 

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article and photos by Ernest Barteldes

Anuhea

March 18, 2017

Highline Ballroom

New York, NY

I discovered the music of Maui-born Anuhea quite by accident. Shortly before Renata and I traveled to Hawaii, I started listening to a Hawaiian 105 KINE, a Honolulu radio station to get the place’s vibe, and one song made me smile whenever it was on their playlist. The song’s name was “Forever Summer,” a duet between Anuhea and Justin Young in which they sang about how it was always warm in the company of their significant other even if the weather was less than formidable.

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As someone who used to live in a tropical land and now has to face the reality of snow storms and a very short summer, I got the meaning behind the words, and started paying attention to the artist. I eventually got to know other tunes in her repertoire and ‘liked’ her page on Facebook, making a mental note to catch her live if she ever came to town.

To open the evening was indie singer-songwriter Mahi, who is also the guitarist for Anuhea’s band. Accompanied by his own Fender strat and drummer Revelation, he did a few covers – including Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly” and an original ballad called “Be Mine.” He engaged the crowd by cracking jokes and also getting the audience to sing along to some of the tunes.

After a brief break, Anuhea took to the stage with her band (Mahi, Revelation and a bassist), playing reggae-tinged original tunes. Among the highlights was “Big Deal,” the first of her tunes to catch the attention of radio stations in Hawaii, and “A Simple Love Song,” a recent single whose video was actually shot during her first appearance in New York.

Her band has great chemistry together, and feed off each other quite well. They had wonderful three and four-part harmonies on many of the tunes, and that made for a very enjoyable experience. While she played mostly original material, she included a cover of Chaka Khan’s “Sweet Thing” with an arrangement closer to her own style. To my personal delight she included the aforementioned “Forever Summer” with Mahi taking over Justin Young’s vocal parts. There was a joke around the recent Disney cartoon “Moana,” and the band played a snippet of “How Far I’ll Go” as part of it to great response.

The set was short but highly enjoyable – I hope I get another chance to hear her live again soon.

Music Reviews: Marisa Monte’s Colecao and David Feldman’s Horizonte: Two From Brazil

By Ernest Barteldes

Colecao

Marisa Monte

Universal Music

David Feldman

Horizonte

Self-released

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Marisa Monte is not what you would call a conventional performer – in spite of having a very successful career spanning almost three decades (yes, her debut was released in 1989), she was reportedly not too happy with the idea of releasing a collection of her greatest hits. However, since her contract with Universal Music (which merged with EMI in 2011) called for a compilation, the solution was to put together a selection of lesser-known tunes that either appeared as duets in other performers’ albums or in movie soundtracks – plus a handful that had never seen the light of day until then.

Being the perfectionist that Monte is, this is no hastily thrown-together compilation but a carefully curated tune selection. A couple of those tracks might be well-known to World Music fans, such her duet with David Byrne on the Jobim classic “Waters of March” that appeared on the first Red, Hot and Rio album in 1996 – it is a welcome update on the bossa nova compositions, filled with electronic sounds and the Afro-Brazilian percussion of Carlinhos Brown. Another is the gentle balad “Ilusion,” a bilingual (English/Portuguese duet with Mexican singer Julieta Venegas from the latter’s MTV Unplugged disc.

Among the highlights is “Nu Com a Minha Musica,” a Caetano Veloso composition originally featured on the criminally ignored Red, Hot & Rio 2, a celebration of the Tropicalia Generation led by Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Tom Ze and others. Also great is “Chuva No Mar,” a duet with Portuguese fado singer Carminho.

Because Monte is such a versatile singer, many fans don’t realize how good she is at belting out a traditional samba – in fact, she has done considerable effortsto record voices from samba, and “Volta Meu Amor” and “Dizem Que o Amor” are excellent examples of that – she loses herself in the music with zero pretension and emerges with very enjoyable moments.

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I first encountered the sounds of pianist David Feldman as part of the Brazilian side of Scott Feiner’s “Pandeiro Jazz” project (he recorded his second album of that concept with a band based in Rio). A few years later, he participated in drummer Duduka Da Fonseca’s contemporary-driven trio. In recent years I heard he’d been performing Stateside, but I didn’t have the chance to catch him live.

In spite of his English-sounding name, Feldman was born in Rio and lived in New York for a number of years following his graaduation from the New School of Jazz and Cotemporary Music until he returned to Brazil, where he has a solid career both as a bandleader and a sideman with the likes of Leny Andrade, Maria Rita and Leo Gandeldman, to name a few.

On “Horizonte,” Feldman showcases his bossa nova chops in tunes like “Tetê,” a gentle samba that evokes memories of mid-career Jobim with a touch of Dorival Caymmi, featuring guitarist Toninho Horta on guitar and vocals. “Esqueceram de Mim no Aeroporto,” however, goes into more contemporary direction. Marcio Bahia’s drums have rich polyrythms that complement Feldman’s groove in a perfect manner – bassist Andre Vasconcelos completes the backdrop with gusto with his bassline (plus an accomplished solo halfway through).

Ceu e Mar” follows a similar direction – a modern piece with clear influence from samba jazz, specially via the rhythm section, who keeps the feel in Rio even if Feldman takes the music somewhere else. “Sliding Ways,” on the other hand, sounds like a jazz homage to gafiera samba, the kind played in ballrooms in Brazil. Trombonist Raul de Souza guests, giving the tune a hummable feel rarely found in jazz albums these days.

Album Review: Chuck Loeb’s “Unspoken”

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by Ernest Barteldes

On  Unspoken (Shanachie, 2017) , legendary  Fourplay and Steps Ahead lead guitarist Chuck Loeb explores various sonic  textures over a collection of ten originals he either –except for one –  wrote or co-wrote. He kicks off the album with the up-tempo “Cotton Club,” a funk-driven tune that he dedicates to the staff of the eponymous Tokyo venue, which he describes on the liners as “my favorite jazz club in the world.”  The track was co-written with Jeff Lorber, who also contributes piano – including a dexterous solo – to it.

Loeb plays various instruments throughout the track – on tunes like “Natural Light” and Way Up High” he performs virtually everything except drums.  Though the arrangements to these tunes are relatively sparse, he uses them as a fodder to improvise more freely – on the former, Andy Snitzer contributes a mellifluous solo, while Loeb adds interesting textures on acoustic guitar.

The title track has a more downtempo feel, and features fellow Fourplay member Nathan East on electric bass and Brian Culbertson on piano. It’s the kind of track that makes you appreciate light jazz – accomplished, beautifully written and accessible.

“Si Se Puede” – which he dedicated to Barack Obama – has more of a bossa feel, with a more subtle arrangement that gives guest trumpeter Till Brönner plenty of space to stretch.  Way Up High (written by his daughter, Lizzy Cuesta) also has a bossa feel, featuring gentle vocals by his wife Carmen Cuesta, who also appears on the samba-driven “Voramar” and the trippy  “Via Verde,” which also includes daughter Christina Loeb on vocals and ukulele (the only appearance of the instrument on the album).

Unspoken is a great offering from Loeb – a concise and yet intriguing album that feels fresh after multiple plays – which this writer recommends to any fan of smooth jazz guitar.

 

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.