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.

What to hear in June – Summerstage and Celebrate Brooklyn 2017

by Ernest Barteldes

 

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I don’t think I need to tell you how much I love attending outdoor concerts. As much as I appreciate our various indoor venues and how some of them go above and beyond to bring diverse voices to their stages, my one musical love is to stand under the hot sun – or the stars  – and enjoy some music without drink minimums or any other restriction regularly imposed by club managers.

For this reason, it is with great expectation that I look forward to the summer months when music comes outdoors, because these musicians have a chance to reach audiences they might never reach out to otherwise –  things would be segregated among the ‘jazz,’ ‘world’ or whatever pocket genre your next tastemaker might come up with.

Among the various events I love to attend are Summertage (once limited to Central Park but now a citywide event) and Celebrate Brooklyn – they are both works of love for all those involved, including this writer –   there is no price to pay for the many memories created by each of the shows I have attended over the years.

Which brings me to my selections for the month of June for both venues – but let me note that I am only commenting on the non-benefit shows – the others get plenty of coverage on their own without my help.

Summerstage gets things running on June 3rd with an opening event featuring the great Mavis Staples (remember “I’ll Take You There?” ), who I wrote about when she played at the same stage in 2008, generating one of the best quotes I have ever heard on stage in my life: “Mississippi is a great place to come from, but it is even a better place to get away from” following a rendition of “Down in Mississippi,” a tune that reminded us of the pain so many went through during the Jim Crow era, which she helped – at least legally – get rid of.

 

Over at Celebrate Brooklyn things begin to get interesting with some soul that brings together Alice Smith, Bilal and Kris Bowers (June 10th) ,all fantastic artists in their own right. Bilal is one of my personal favorites of the three due to his ability to bridge between genres, often contributing with jazz, Latin and rock artists and sounding comfortable among all of them.

Another legend – one of the engineers of funk – is George Clinton, who will be playing with his longtime band Parliament Funkadelic on June 11th  as part of the Only in Queens Festival (associated with Summerstage). It should be a magical night at Flushing Meadows Park in Queens, and will certainly be worth the ride on the 7 train.

Fête de La Musique (June 26th)  brings some new French music to the foreground – my personal highlight is German-born Ayo, whose 2006 debut single “Down on My Knees” has stayed with me and has also become attached to memories of a 2014 trip to Europe, when the song played at a restaurant in Krakow  – whenever I hear the tune it takes me back to that unlikely place in my life. It is a song in which the narrator pleads for her lover not to go away and reminds him (her?) of the things they have shared.

My great appreciation for Robert Glasper (June 25, Central Park)  is not a secret – I have reviewed his albums and live performances over the years. His approach to jazz is quite unique as he blends elements of jazz and contemporary music (hip-hop, soul) with a political edge – he collaborates with folks you don’t usually associate with jazz, such as Erikah Badu and Bilal, to name a few – and is humble enough to go on the road as a supporting musician for Maxwell – one of the pioneers of the contemporary sould movement.

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Lila Downs

June closes with Lila Downs (Celebrate Brooklyn, June 29) , who is one of my top 10 favorite female singers. She is one of the few musicians I know who can tackle pretty much any genre while staying true to her Mexican roots. I have been following her music since I saw her at a downtown concert in which she shared the bill with Brazil’s Luciana Souza – I was immediately hooked by her expressive voice and stage presence. I must have seen her live at least ten times since and am surely looking forward for this one.

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.

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.

Preview: Mariza At Town Hall and NJPAC

Mariza

Saturday, October 15 at Town Hall

Sunday, October 16 at NJPAC (featuring Bebel Gilberto)

For more information visit Mariza.com

By Ernest Barteldes

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Back in 2009 I was fortunate to be in the audience at Carnegie Hall to hear Mariza sing in support of Terra, (2008) an album that was a bit of a crossover for her – in addition to the traditional fados that caused her to be called “the next Amalia Rodrigues,” she included songs like Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile” (backed by Gonzalo Rubalcaba) and The Beatles’ “Yesterday” with a jazz-inflected treatment that was quite different from what you hear on the streets of Alfama.

At the time I was not aware that she was about to embark into a half-decade hiatus to dedicate herself to starting a family . I was glad that to hear she was ready to go back on the road when I was assigned to write a preview of her Krakow debut earlier this year, and was eager to hear her in the US again.

I guess I am getting my wish.

Mariza returns with “Mundo” (Nonesuch, 2016), a disc that  takes her music to yet a further direction, embracing pop, jazz and other genres with a little help of several guest artists who sometimes take the spotlight entirely away from her.

Produced by Javier Limon, the album blends more traditional fados with more modern grooves – the first example being “Paixao,” a ballad that begins with a more classical feel then incorporates electric bass and percussion – something not very commonly heard In an album of this genre – the impression I had was as if Queen’s Brian May had decided to produce the tune then decided not to multi-track his legendary Red Special guitar into it. Another great moment is “Padoce de Ceu Azul,” a ballad with a laid-back feel that gives a chance to hear Mariza outside of the usual dramatic sound of fado.

Fans of Lisbon’s signature sound should not worry – most of the tunes keep into the format, but I agree that Mariza should go beyond their comfort zone as Cristina Branco, Ivete Sangalo and others have done before her. But she is not just expanding, but bringing fado to the 21st Century – “Sem Ti” is clearly inside the genre but cleverly brings other elements to it – without completely breaking away.

I am not sure how Mariza is going to bring all the music together on a live format, but am certainly curious. She always has the ability to surprise audiences with unexpected surprises – at Carnegie Hall she had all the mikes turned off and did a few songs acapella the way it is done back home.

I can assure everyone in the audience – wherever they were – heard every note.

Music Preview: Bibi Ferreira at Symphony Space, New York City

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By Ernest Barteldes

Bibi Ferreira

Tuesday, Sept. 20 & 23

Symphony Space

8 PM

I have known about the legendary Brazilian diva Bibi Ferreira for a very long time – she has a long history as a singer, producer, actress and director going from the 1940s to present. She is still active in spite of being 94 years young – and gives no signs of slowing down anytime soon.

I did two interviews with her for The Brasilians over the past few years and was surprised not only by how articulate she was on the phone and also by her fantastic memory – she can remember details of shows she did generations ago as if she had walked out of stage five minutes ago. I was even more amazed to hear her live at Alice Tully Hall – hard to believe is was her New York debut – and heard her sing an array of hard tunes ranging from Verdi to Chico Buarque and Piaf – as if they were nothing.

And then there was Liza Minelli’s hilarious surprise appearance, when they shared the mike for a snippet of “Theme from New York, New York” – a tune made famous by Frank Sinatra but actually introduced by Minelli (go ahead, Google it) in 1972.

On her current show Four Times Bibi, she pays tribute to fado queen Amalia Rodrigues, Piaf, tango legend Carlos Gardel and none other than our own Frank Sinatra – an evening that will bring together various genres together in what promises to be nothing short of amazing – a show that is not to be missed.

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.