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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Live Review: Leslie DiNicola, Lee DeWyze & Wakey Wakey at The Cutting Room

By Ernest Barteldes

 

Leslie DiNicola, Lee DeWyze & Wakey Wakey

Cutting Room

February 12, 2016

New York, NY

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On the CD release event for folk/rock singer Lee Dewyze at the Midtown Manhattan music venue, Leslie DiNicola opened the evening accompanied by guitarist Greg Neal, playing a short set comprised mostly of original tunes. I had never heard of her music before, but I was impressed by her strong voice and honest delivery – on the sole cover (a song by Demi Lovato), she made it sound her own, departing from the original version and giving it her distinctive feel.

Next up was Wakey! Wakey! (the stage name of singer-songwriter and actor Michael Grubbs), who accompanied himself on the electric piano, playing songs from his upcoming album “Overreactivist” (Family) and other tunes from his catalogue. It was a lively set in which he cracked jokes about his being a longtime fan of Harry Connick Jr.  and other personal stories. Among the highlights was a tune about New York in which he was critical of religious piety and small town life versus the way he was brought up. He also played “Heartbroke,” a tune he performed on the TV show “One Tree Hill,” where he got one of his big breaks.

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Wakey! Wakey! is clearly inspired by jazz and musical theatre – his vocal chops and delivery seem fit for musicals, and his piano skills have strains of jazz without being exactly improvisational. The set was highly entertaining and the music was quite interesting to hear.

After a short break Lee Dewyze came on, backed by his own acoustic guitar and an electronic bass drum pedal, which he used to mark some parts of the tunes. He mostly showcased music from “Oil and Water,” (Shanachie) but also included a handful of older songs, including a very personal cover of Sam Smith’s “Stay with Me” that focused mostly on his guttural vocals and accomplished guitar strumming.

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He had the stage set up with book-like lights around him, and there were also several books scattered around him – there was no explanation what it was about, and concentrated instead on speaking about his music and approach to songwriting.

Dewyze used several guitar tunings, including open and drop D (a technique famously used by Brian May on Queen’s “Fat Bottomed Girls”). He made little reference to his time on American Idol (he was the winner of season 9), stating once between songs that he’d prefer to be remembered for his own songwriting than his time on the TV contest.

I was impressed by how much control he has of his voice – he goes from singing in an almost whispered tone to a stronger, throaty voice – this was mostly evident on “Stay with Me” and the music on the new album.

It was a memorable evening of musical discovery – I don’t often get to hear independent pop artists, but I definitely would like to hear more from these three performers in the near future.