2014 Retrospective: The Year in Music

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El Gallo Mistico
2014 was a very good year for live performances and recordings of all stripes. Two of the most memorable performances were, Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Nuevo Jazz Latino and El Gallo Místico at Minton’s in Harlem.

Nuevo Jazz Latino was the best of both worlds – An all-star ensemble featuring bassist Carlos Henriquez, pianist Elio Villafranca, saxophonist Yosvany Terry, drummer Dafnis Prieto, and conguero-vocalist Pedrito Martinez and new works composed especially for the event.

Here’s an excerpt from a piece I wrote about the event: “Nuevo Jazz Latino was one of the best performances I have seen this year. I applaud Jazz at Lincoln Center for coming up with the idea of uniting a ‘dream’ band and composing new material especially for the occasion. Performance wise, the repertoire was fresh, and the musicianship was off the charts.”

El Gallo Místico (The Sacred Rooster) combined the potent ritual drumming and dance of the Yoruba, Congo and Carabali tribes with the avant-garde. Here’s an excerpt from my interview with curator, Dita Sullivan, where I describe the event: “Words don’t do the performance justice but for those who missed it, it felt like an authentic Cuban rumba and North American jam-session rolled into one. It was a joyous, spontaneous performance that contained elements of Cuban folkloric music, progressive jazz, the spoken word, dance, vocals and master percussionist, vocalist and griot, Román Díaz.”

El Gallo Místico is Master percussionists Román Díaz, Clemente Medina, George Jiménez and Steve Insúa, vocalist Melvis Santa, saxophonist Onel Mulet and pianist David Virelles. Have we seen the last of El Gallo Místico? I certainly hope not.

Without any further ado, I present my picks for 2014, in no particular order.

Sam Newsome – The Straight Horn of Africa: A Path to Liberation
(The Art of the Soprano, Vol.2) / CD (CD Baby) / E-Book (Amazon.com)

Sam Newsome

The Straight Horn of Africa picks up where Blue Soliloquy (2010) and The Art Of The Soprano, Vol. 1 (2012) left off.

Through the use of multi phonics, micro tonality, slap tonguing, circular breathing, vocalizations, multi-tracking and his unlimited imagination Newsome pushes the alto-saxophone beyond its traditional limits and creates ancient/modern otherworldly melodies, rhythms, and harmonies.

Tunes, such as “Highlife” and “The Snake Charmer of Tangier,” will leave you scratching your head and wondering how one person is capable of creating so many exciting, thought provoking sounds.

The Straight Horn of Africa is mostly for adventurous listeners with “big ears” and curious minds. For those who require a musical road map, Professor Charles D. Carlson’s liner-notes are just the ticket.

In addition, Newsome’s e-book (same title) provides the listener with the back-story (every recording has a back-story). The icing on the cake is a thought-provoking interview with drummer, composer Francisco Mora Catlett, who “schools” the listener on the ins and outs of African music.

Where does Newsome go from here? That’s for him to know and us to find out!

Learn more about Sam Newsome at: samnewsomemusic.com

Miguel Zenón – Identities are Changeable (CD Baby)

Miguel ZenonIdentities are Changeable draws its inspiration from Professor Juan Flores’ book, The Diaspora Strikes Back, which speaks to, “Puerto Ricans who continue to claim membership in the national community, but whose life experience has had the effect of differentiating them from their island-based compatriots in myriad ways.”

As part of his ongoing investigation, Zenón conducts a series of interviews with seven Puerto Ricans who live in the New York area and composed music around the clips.

Zenón’s past recordings have explored Puerto Rican music and culture. Here, he takes a more expanded view of what it means to be Puerto Rican. According to Zenón, “Identity does not have to be definite, your identity can change throughout your life, depending on your situation. Two individuals can have the same experiences and choose different roles.”

Sadly, Professor Juan Flores, who plays a prominent role in the project, recently passed away.

Zenón shines as a player, composer, arranger, conductor and profound thinker.

Learn more about Miguel Zenón at: miguelzenon.com

Eva Cortés – In Bloom (Verve Spain/Truth Revolution Records U.S)

Eva CortesHonduran singer, songwriter, composer Eva Cortés was raised in a “very flamenco neighborhood” in Sevilla, Spain.

Born into a musical, multicultural environment, Cortés made her debut at the age of eight and collaborated with the iconic flamenco singer, Camarón de la Isla at the age of seventeen.

Her mainstay is jazz, but Cortés sees her music as the sum total of what her life has been and refuses to be pigeonholed.

In Bloom features nine original compositions, three “covers” and a stellar cast, including bassist Christian Mc Bride, drummer Kendrick Scott, Reinaldo de Jesús and Mike Moreno among others.

To date, Cortés has released six, highly acclaimed recordings as a leader. In addition, she has traveled the world and collaborated with some of the most renowned musicians on the planet.

In Bloom was released in Spain in 2014. It will be released in the U.S. in 2015 (Truth Revolution Records).

Meet Eva Cortés | Learn more about Eva Cortés at: evacortes.com

SpokFrevo Orquestra – Ninho de Vespa (Motéma Music)

SpokFrevoThe SpokFrevo Orquestra is a seventeen piece powerhouse, led by Inaldo Cavalcante de Albuquerque, also known as “Spok.”

The orchestra specializes in Frevo, whose origins date back to the second-half of the 19th century in Recife, Brazil, where the maxixe, the Brazilian tango, the quadrille, the gallope, the military two-step and the polka inexplicably combined to form a hybrid.

The music is fast, loud, joyful, energetic and contagious. There is nothing that quite compares with seeing the orchestra live. Nevertheless, Ninho de Vespa does an admirable job of capturing the orchestra’s sound and spirit.

Performance Review: SpokFrevo Live, at JALC | Learn more about Spokfrevo at: spokfrevo.com.br

Rufus Reid – Quiet Pride: The Elizabeth Catlett Project (Motéma Music)

Rufus Reid“My goal was to have the music rendered so as to parallel my feelings and thoughts evoked by these beautiful Elizabeth Catlett sculptures: Recognition, Mother and Child, Singing Head, Glory, and Stargazer. My goal has been achieved.” —Rufus Reid

It’s a good example of what occurs when an artist, no matter how famous, has the courage and wherewithal to reach out to others in the spirit of collaboration and take a leap of faith.

I recently had the pleasure of seeing Reid and his 21-piece all-star big band perform the suite in its entirety. Suffice it to say it was an evening I won’t soon forget.

Quiet Pride has been nominated for a Grammy for Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album. The track, “Recognition” was nominated for Best Instrumental Composition.

For the back-story, read my interview with Rufus Reid

Learn more about Rufus Reid at: rufusreid.com | Photo by Jimmy Katz

David Virelles – Mbókò – Sacred Music for Piano, Two Basses, Drum Set and Biankoméko Abakuá (ECM Records)

David VirellesMbókò picks up where, Continuum, (2013) left off, but this time the “conversation” is more explicit.

According to Virelles, “I’m learning about a vast culture with a vast history, and that is very inspiring. I’m not trying to recreate Abakuá music. I’m observing how the elements behave and interact within the culture, and I’m analyzing how that works so I can bring it to the context of my music.”

Virelles draws inspiration from the Carabalí culture and particularly, the Abakuá society in Cuba. In addition, he pays tribute to military and spiritual Leader José Quintín Bandera Betancourt (1846 – 1906) and María Teresa Vera (1895-1965), who brought Abakuá musical elements into the secular realm.

Virelles’ band mates, Marcus Gilmore, bassists Thomas Morgan and Robert Hursts and percussionist Román Díaz, do an excellent job of bringing Virelles’ singular vision to life.

If the highly acclaimed Continuum was any indication, “Mbókò” is destined to follow in its footsteps. Virelles is a profound thinker whose artistry belies his age.

Learn more about David Virelles at: davidvirelles.com | Interview with David Virelles

Lila Downs, Nina Pastori, Soledad Pastorutti – Raíz (RCA Records)

Raiz - Lila Downs - Nina Pastori - SoledadLatin Grammy winner Lila Downs teams up with two artists who represent the folklore of their respective countries, Spanish flamenco singer Niña Pastori and Argentine folk singer Soledad.

The threesome chose each other’s songs, arranged the material and got together in Mexico City to record the vocals. The entire process took about three weeks and in spite of their strong personalities and musical backgrounds, they had a great time pulling it off.

The music is uplifting and joyous. The vocals are powerful, passionate and soulful.

I had the pleasure of seeing Lila Downs perform at Jazz at Lincoln Center earlier this year. When I saw her perform a decade ago she was an emerging artist who bore a strong resemblance to Frida Kahlo. Today, she’s a full-fledged Mexican Goddess with a singular vision and an activist with a penchant for telling the stories of ordinary people with a sense of compassion and flair.

Learn more about Lila Downs at: liladowns.com | Performance Review: Lila Downs Live at JALC

Jimmy Greene – Beautiful Life (Mack Avenue Records)

Jimmy Greene - Beautiful LifeSaxophonist, composer Jimmy Greene’s daughter, Ana Marquez Greene, shared his passion for music and enjoyed listening to her father play. She was one of 19 students and six educators who were brutally murdered by a lone gunman at Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14, 2012.

Somehow, Greene was able to summon the strength to channel his personal anguish into one of the most moving and inspirational recordings of the year. According to Greene, “It’s a way to keep her alive and on the tip of her tongues.”

Featured guests include, guitarist Pat Metheny, vocalists Kurt Elling, NBC’s “The Voice” Javier Colon and The Princess and the Frog actress Anika Noni Rose, pianists Kenny Barron and Cyrus Chestnut among others.

“Beautiful Life” is a heart-wrenching example of the healing and transformational power of music. In a message to the public, Jimmy writes, “Thank you for showing my family and me so much love and support. You remind us of the best of humanity, especially now as we have been forced to suffer through what quite possibly is the worst of humanity. In the words of child trauma expert Pat Wilcox, “The antidote to trauma is love.” You have shown your abundant love in so many ways. It gives my family and me strength and I am truly grateful.”

All proceeds go towards the Ana Marquez Greene Music Scholarship Fund at Western Connecticut State University.

Learn more about Jimmy Greene at: jimmygreene.com

El Gran Combo – 50 Aniversario – Volume 1 (Soh Records)

El Gran ComboEl Gran Combo de Puerto aka “the University of Salsa” is Puerto Rico’s most successful group and one of the most popular salsa bands in Latin America.

50 Aniversario – Volume 1, is an outstanding compilation with an interesting twist. Where many bands with a string of gargantuan hits would be content to rest on their laurels, the band chose to feature their lesser-known hits.

It’s a great concept for a number of reasons. Die-hard El Gran Combo fans know the hits by rote. More important, it allows the band to do what they do best, but in a different context.

No doubt, some fans will be disappointed but in the end it’s all good – great dance music with Puerto Rican, “sabor” and “swing,” performed in good taste.

50 Aniversario – Volume 1 has been nominated for a Grammy in the Best Tropical Latin Album category.

Learn more about El Gran Combo at: elgrancombodepuertorico.net

Yosvany Terry – New Throned King (5 Passion Records)

Yosvany TerrySaxophonist, composer Yosvany Terry set out to document a repertoire of sacred music and ceremony specific to the West African Dahomeyan tradition in Matanzas, Cuba. The result is a revelation and his most ambitious recording to date.

Nearly every track salutes and/or portrays the attributes of various Arará deities. “Walking Over Wave” hails Afrekete, an oceanic, maternal figure; “Dance Transformation” is for Gebioso, a god of thunder. The title track highlights the coronation of the Orisha Asojano, a spirit of healing.

According to Terry, “At the center of “New Throned King” is the desire to preserve the endangered Dahomeyan culture of Cuba known as Arará. But though the heart of it is traditional, I’m a composer and I’m trying to portray the individual aesthetics of the different Arará deities, with my personal style and 21st century audio.”

Personnel: Yosvany Terry “Sobo Jain”: saxophones, chekeré, wewé, coro; Osmany Paredes: piano; Yunior Terry: “Afra Jun”: bass, coro; Pedrito Martinez “Eshu Ni”: lead vocalist, opitli; Sandy Pérez “Oya Ladde”: yonofo, akotó; Román Diaz “Asia Ana Bi” wewé, coro; Dominick Kanza: guitar; Justin Brown: drumset, Jason Moran: piano; Val Jeanty: sound design, DJ; Gema Corredera: coro; Ishmael Reed: poetry.

New Throned King was nominated for a Grammy in the Latin Jazz category.

Learn more about Yosvany Terry at: yosvanyterry.com

Mark Weinstein – Latin Jazz Underground (Zoho Music)

Mark WeinsteinLatin Jazz Underground finds the trombonist turned flutist saluting the jazz loft scene of the ’70s and jazz legends pianist Andrew Hill, saxophonists Ornette Coleman and Sam Rivers and other like-minded iconoclasts with an Afro-Cuban twist.

Once more, Weinstein teams up with the Cuban pianist, composer Aruán Ortiz, who came up with the idea of recording a tribute to jazz loft scene and include compositions by Coleman, Rivers, and Hill.

According to Weinstein, “That was just a perfect idea for me, since I was part of that scene as a trombonist with Bill Dixon back in those days. But I also wanted it to have an Afro-Cuban complexion. The problem then became how to integrate Afro-Cuban drumming with free jazz.”

That’s where percussionist Román Díaz, bassist Rashaan Carter and drummer Gerald Cleaver come in. Díaz turned out to be the perfect bridge between both worlds while the Detroit-born Cleaver, who has extensive credits in the free jazz and straight ahead, realms was the final piece to the puzzle.

“What I wanted to do with this album is show that you could really stretch the boundaries while holding onto the Afro-Cuban core,” says Weinstein. “And I hope that this album will attract the attention of people who know and love jazz and appreciate someone trying to do something different.”

Mark is one of the most adventurous artists I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing. I have fond memories of listening to a rough cut of Tales From the Earth (recorded with Omar Sosa in 2009) with Mark. Then as now, I marvel at Mark’s “big ears” and his propensity for surrounding himself and collaborating with the best musicians on the planet.

The tune “For Emilio,” is on my eternal playlist!

Learn more about Mark Weinstein at: jazzfluteweinstein.com

Honorable mention