One of the most endearing aspects of the great Afro-Cuban bands of the past—bands like those led by Mario Bauzá and Machito—was the fact that their music was not only sparkling with grandeur of idiomatic rhythms, but that the music also expressed a great longing for the joy of Cuba. For a long time this emotion seemed lost because of the flashy virtuosity that was preferred over the voices of the heart. However, that may be about to end, with this album, El Montunero—Country Roots/Urban Masters by the magnificent Chico Alvarez with the Palomonte Afro-Cuban Big Band. With extravagant musical arrangements directed by Edy Martinez, and vocals and lyric poetry recitations by Alvarez, the album has all the makings of an epic one, which not only harks back to some of the finest Afro-Cuban/Latin Jazz albums ever made, but is also one of the most memorable in this idiom; its crowning musical and extra-musical moments lie in the extraordinary chart “The Rhythms of My Life” a beautiful odyssey into the heart and soul of Alvarez voyage of discovery.
The album is exquisitely arranged, with lush voicing used to match the immaculate tenor of Alvarez. Musical arrangements are ensconced in the molten brass and rich woodwinds as well as in the heart-stopping chorus arrangements featuring some of the finest voices in the world of Afro-Cuban music. There are also several stand-out performances on the album; these are led by the heroic performance by Alvarez himself. His diction is lyrical and superb so much so that there is an inner melodicism in the manner in which he annunciates his words. His expression is beautiful and he has a singular, truly sensuous manner in both spoken and sung words. His phrasing is also unique and this is reflected in the swagger with which he delivers both short and longer lines. Alvarez is the chief inspiration for pianist and musical director, Edy Martinez, who does not solo much, but when he does, his short breaks are filled with intricate turns of phrase.
There are several exciting instrumental breaks and with the presence of such luminaries as trumpeters, Roberto Rodriguez and Ray Vega; saxophonists, Peter Branin and Enrique Fernandez; trombonists Rafi Malkiel and Noah Bless; and of course, the bassists, Carlos Del Pino and Ruben Rodriguez as well as the celebrated tumbadoras, Wilson “Chembo” Corniel. Urging them on is Alvarez and Martinez and a host of fine singers in the chorus. Then there is the matter of the repertoire—an all-classic program if ever there was one—which also includes a stellar version of “Autumn Leaves” and an absolutely exquisite version of Lester Young’s chart, “Jumpin With Symphony Sid” with special lyrics by Alvarez. These two charts mark an aside from the otherwise Spanish-dominated disc and provide an extraordinary break from the main line of the proceedings.
All told, this is an exquisite album; one that will no doubt have sown the seeds of other projects, which—if not more big band repertoire—will certainly be much appreciated just as this memorable album is.
Track Listing: 1. Esta Noche; 2. Macho’s Latin Satin; 3. Yo Soy el Son Cubano; 4. Arsenio y Linda; 5. Sabroso Mambo; 6. Autumn Leaves; 7. Jumpin’ With Symphony Sid; 8. El Indio Caonabo; 9. Del Tirano y Del Error; 10. Los Niños de la Noche; 11. Tonight; 12. The Rhythms of My Life; 13. Let’s Make Love.
Personnel: Chico Alvarez: vocals, poetry and spoken word (7, 9, 10 12); David Oquendo: background vocals (5, 8); Ray Viera: background vocals (3, 4, 10); Leonel “Papo” Ortega: background vocals (3, 10); Luis Mangual Jr.: background vocals (12); Viviam Ara: background vocals (6); Ronnie Baro: background vocals (5, 8); Luis Mario Ochoa: background vocals (1); Chico Alvarez: background vocals (1, 3, 4, 5, 8, 10, 12, 13); Edy Martinez: musical direction and piano (2 – 8); Carlos del Pino: bass (2, 5, 8, 10); Ruben Rodriguez: bass (1, 3, 4, 6, 7, 11); Wilson “Chembo” Corniel: tumbadoras: (2, 5, 8); Nelson Diaz: timbales (2, 5, 9); Luis Mangual Jr.: bongo & cencerro (1, 2, 5, 8, 9, 10, 11); Diego Lopez: drums (1, 3, 4, 6, 7, 11); Chico Alvarez: claves, guiro, tumbadoras (6); Roberto Rodriguez: trumpet; Steve Gluzband: trumpet; Ray Vega: trumpet; Guido Gonzalez: trumpet; Peter Branin: saxophone; Enrique Fernandez: saxophone; Al Acosta: saxophone; Octavio Ponce: saxophone; Rafi Malkiel: trombone; Noah Bless: trombone; Jose Leonardo Freyre: trombone; Omar Castanos: copyist, extra parts (1); Johnny Rodriguez: tumbadoras, bongo (4, 7); Gene Golden: tumbadoras (1, 3, 10, 11); tumbadoras and quinto guataca (8, 12); Mauricio Smith Jr.: flute(12); Chiemi Nakai: piano (1, 11); Raphael Cruz: shekere (8, 12); Sergio Rivera: piano (10); Hector Torres: timbales (12); Hiram Diaz: tumbadoras (12); Tony Cruz: cencerro (12); Oscar Hernandez: piano (12); Eddie “Guagua” Rivera: bass (12); Mike Perez: violin (1, 11); Tiffany Rodriguez: violin and viola (1, 11); Lino Fernandez: timbales (10); Eloi Oliveros: drums, bongo (13).
Released – 2012
Label – Mafimba Productions
Adrien Brandeis: Siempre Más Allá
Listening to the music of Siempre Más Allá, it certainly seems that the young French pianist, Adrien Brandeis has strengthened the belief that he is a proverbial citizen of the Afro-Caribbean universe. To be clear Mr Brandeis still loves all music and swings as hard as any pianist who loves Black American Music – that is, music that you can sing and dance to. But also continues to be beguiled by the rolling thunder of Afro-Caribbean music. The wild call of the rhythms and the joie de vivre of the questing melodies and harmonies not only appeal to his ear, but also speak to him in the hidden parts of his heart.
By his own admission Siempre Más Allá took root during three tours to Mexico undertaken under the aegis of the Fédération des Alliances Françaises du Mexique. The virtually all-Afro-Cuban repertoire of the album radiates charm at every turn. These disarmingly natural and eloquent performances bring out the music’s inherent drama and penchant for tumbao with a deft touch while indulging Brandeis’ lyrical instincts to the full. Meticulously balanced, the four quartet pieces, the trio and duo pieces feel as if they are chamber works. Brandeis’ astonishingly insightful playing is musically captivating and technically blemishless. Each phrase rings so completely true that one can’t imagine the music played any other way.
The album features Mr Brandeis and a group of very accomplished musicians. These include the celebrated Cuban percussionist Roberto Vizcaíno Guillot [on two tracks] and his son Roberto Vizcaíno Jr., Mexican drummer José Loria Triay make up the wall of percussion. The Brasilian bassist Giliard Lopes brings his distinctive veritas to the whole rhythm section. The big surprise here is, perhaps, the presence of the great Cuban Horacio “El Negro” Hernández sitting in the drum chair on La buena vibra.
Siempre Más Allá is an affirmation of Brandeis’ enduring love and natural affinity for Latin music. Not surprisingly the music seems to echo the famous Latin American phrase: “¡Que rico bailo yo!” [which, in English, exclaims: “How well I dance!”]. This is no hyperbole as the music – in its pulses and rhythms show as Brandeis traverses the rhythmic topography of the Caribbean and Latin America. Along the way Brandeis plunged into the world of changüí, the chacarera, Brasilian gaucho music and the ancient melodic thunder of bàtá drums.
From the get-go listeners will find themselves immersed in quite another world of rippling percussive grooves. The track Ek Bakam, for instance, conjures the intricate architecture; the line and flow of an epic Mayan civilisation located in the Yucatan. Narratives from the Latin world abound – often paying homage to famous traditional musicians. Pancho’s Power is one such chart inspired by the vivid world of the legendary trio Los Panchos. Brandeis gives his percussion section a lot of space when he puts the spotlight on them on Tierra de Oportunidades – a wistful memory of the pianist’s three tours to Mexico, which is also incidentally the popular provincial slogan of the Mexican state of Guanajuato. On Huachi-Huachi Brandeis digs deep into the epicurean delights of the only Latin country in North America with this song in praise of a kind of gourmet Mexican fish: the huachinango.
Brandeis then celebrates his association with percussion colourist Roberto Vizcaíno Jr. with the extraordinary music of Vizcaíno Blues, a piece unique with its exploratory chromaticisms and elegant sonorities that beautifully capture the eloquence of the percussionist in whose praise the music is written. Mindful of the fact that Vizcaíno is Cuban but makes his home in Mexico, Brandeis shapes the rhythmic and harmonic palette of the piece accordingly. On La Buena Vibra Brandeis delivers astonishing pianistic fireworks in the piece’s melodic and harmonic lines, played at a frenetic pace, to mirror the style of its dedicatee, Michel Camilo. The pianist demonstrates an authentic home-grown grasp of Cuban music as he reimages Voy a Apagar la Luz, by the legendary and late-singer Armando Manzanero, here adapted as a wistful solo piano work. Meanwhile on the dizzying ride of Humpty Dumpty the pianist pays homage to another idol: Chick Corea, by revisiting the sparkling composition of the recently-deceased piano maestro.
It is hard not to be mesmerised by this spirited and finely nuanced music artfully crafted in an album by Adrien Brandeis, a pianist who is about to take the world by storm with a recording that is going to be one of the finest by any musician located outside the Latin American sub-continent.
Tracks – 1: Huachi Huachi; 2: Alegría; 3: Pancho’s Power; 4: Ek balam; 5: Un peu d’espoir; 6: Vizcaíno’s Blues; 7: Tierra de oportunidades; 8: Humpty Dumpty; 9: La buena vibra; 10: Voy a apagar la luz
Musicians – Adrien Brandeis: piano; Giliard Lopes: contrabass; José Loria Triay: drums; Roberto Vizcaíno Jr: congas and bàtá drums. Featuring – Roberto Vizcaíno Guillot: percussion [1, 6]; Horacio “El Negro” Hernández: drums 
Released – 2022
Label – Mantodea Music Productions
Runtime – 58:25
YouTube Video – Adrien Brandeis – Siempre más allá (EPK)
YouTube Audio – Adrien Brandeis – Vizcaíno’s Blues
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