Devotees of the incredible vivacity of Afro-Caribbean music will be spoiled for choice of a favourite moment (or moments) on this inspired 2019 release by Bill O’Connell and The Afro-Caribbean Ensemble, Wind Off The Hudson. There is so much technical mastery of the form – its rhythms and harmonies – all of which are displayed as the highest level by the pianist and the stellar cast of musicians that he has gathered to interpret some of his own repertoire as well as interpretations of works from grand masters such as Duke Ellington (“C Jam Blues”), Juan Tizol (“Perdido”) and Tito Puente (“Oye Como Va”). Also, significantly, this is a debut recording for the group of musicians, some of whom might never before recorded as a group with others, or with Mr O’Connell as well.
Editor’s Pick · Featured Album · Bill O’Connell and The Afro-Caribbean Ensemble: Wind Off the Hudson
Clearly virtuosity is not so much the music’s aim as expressivity, yet Mr O’Connell plays with brilliance throughout. No Less impressive is the compelling interaction between Mr O’Connell and the excellent Afro-Caribbean Ensemble, clearly a crucial component in the pianist’s music that is symphonic in design. The ensemble’s contributions to the dialogue are always carefully shaped and fully responsive to the subtle nuances in the pianist’s phrasing. Another striking aspect of the recording is the fact that one is hardly conscious of the pianist’s innate virtuosity almost throughout this performance; indeed he virtually eschews the kind of dazzle that piano-playing leaders and conductors usually bring to Afro-Caribbean music, especially when the careful density of the arrangements makes way for the familiar descarga component of the music.
Mr O’Connell’s own solos are short, usually made up of two-handed melodic stabs and chordal thrusts onto the keyboard, designed to keep the ensemble invigorated and leading into reeds, winds and horn solos by Craig Handy – who appears here on alto and soprano saxophones – as well as the broad tenor of Ralph Bowen, the rumbling baritone of Gary Smulyan, the veritable flights of Andrea Brachfeld’s flutes, Alex Sipiagin’s smouldering trumpet and flugelhorn and Conrad Herwig’s elegant growling trombone. Meanwhile keeping it all rocking, swaggering and shimmering in the pocket are the combined forces of rhythmists Lincoln Goines (bass), Robby Ameen (drums) and the incomparable Román Díaz (congas). Leading from the front is O’Connell, who keeps this music profoundly beautiful whether he is creating a tornado on “Wind Off The Hudson”, or letting things simmer on the Holy Rollin’ mystique of “Gospel 6”.
Meanwhile Bill O’Connell also makes the strongest possible case for his mastery of composition and the re-invigoration of harmonic statement. His reconstructions of “C Jam Blues”, “Perdido” and “Oye Como Va” are far from mere re-arrangements; rather they appear to be absolutely new and imaginative architectural wonders located from their original idiomatic landscape into a wholly new musical topography. Deploying the widest possible range of colour, dynamics and articulation he brings a surprisingly varied degree of emotions to the music – these compositions as well as his own – adopting (in the case of “C Jam Blues” especially) daringly faster speeds and wildly inventive rhythms at every turn. This has the desired effect of ratcheting up the tension between the piano and the rest of the harmonists – notably in “Perdido”, with the shifting-sands in the harmony that recalls both “Giant Steps” rolled into an etching by Maurits Escher – which, in this instance, is worked to maximum dramatic effect. You may not find a better recording in this musical space this year or the next.
Tracks – 1: Wind Off the Hudson; 2: Gospel 6; 3: Jerry’s Blues; 4: I Don’t Have the Answer: 5: Oye Como Va; 6: Perdido; 7: Got Cha; 8: Transition; 9: C Jam Blues; 10: Discombobulation
Personnel – Bill O’Connell: piano, compositions and arrangements; Andrea Brachfeld: flute (1, 3, 5, 7–10) and alto flute (4); Craig Handy: alto saxophone (1-3, 6, 7, 9, 10) and soprano saxophone (8); Ralph Bowen: tenor saxophone; Gary Smulyan: baritone saxophone; Alex Sipiagin: trumpet and flugelhorn (4); Conrad Herwig: trombone; Lincoln Goines: electric bass; Robby Ameen: drums; Román Díaz: congas (1 – 3, 5 – 10)
Released – 2019
Label – Savant Records
Runtime – 1:01:29
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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