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Donald Vega: With Respect to Monty

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Donald-Vega-JDG-2Now this is something really special and it marks not simply a second disc for an iconic label, Resonance Records, which under the inspired hand of engineer/producer George Klabin, has shepherded many some rare and priceless recordings. Donald Vega’s heartfelt tribute With Respect to Monty to the ‘Jamerican’ master, Monty Alexander, marks an exciting turn for the Nicaraguan-born, New York-bred pianist. And so, it would seem that both pianist and label have struck musical gold: Mr. Vega for the obviously thrilling journey that he has undertaken and Resonance for its return to the studio with one of its most prized stablemates and certainly one of the most exciting pianists and musicians in jazz today.

Donald-Vega-Monty-Alexander-LJN-500You know that you’re in remarkable musical company before the piano has sounded a note. Just to listen to the opening exposition of “Eleuthera”: highly responsive, lean and sinuous drums, pungent bass and guitar and the wonderfully characterful pianist all of who melt together with magical alchemy into a musical apothecary’s dream potion. Of course, this isn’t just down to the ‘other’ players: it’s Mr. Vega’s conception right from the start. Even if we can’t actually see him directing, we can sense his musical presence. Personable, wildly brilliant and idiosyncratic full of youthful zest and peerless pianism. He directs from the keyboard and this makes for exactly the kind of chamber-musical, hyperactive performances that you might expect.

The chamber dimensions of the ensemble mean that these are essentially less ‘public’ readings of timeless and more obviously recognisable renditions by lesser musicians. But that is not to suggest that the playing in any way lacks impact. The smaller forces mean that the guitar, bass and drums are naturally purer and more prominent in the mix. I found myself hearing more details in Monty Alexander music than ever before – an ebullient phrase from the guitar here, a piano response there. Consider exquisitely performed and quirkily entitled “3000 Miles Ago”, Mr. Alexander’s moving piece “You Can See” and the profound “Sweet Lady”, all meticulously thought out and yet performed with a sense of breathtaking spontaneity. And there are little touches here and there – reducing the guitar line to spare movements – that demonstrate the detail of the thinking behind these interpretations.

What’s also very striking is that these performances are not simply about élan and energy; they have a sense of gravitas too, of rightness that you find in the most authentic Alexander interpreters. This isn’t something that’s achieved by big, ballsy playing, but rather by a sense of balance, of musicality, of understanding not only the notes themselves but the wider context – where these pieces stand within Monty Alexander’s output and a broader perspective too. The sign of a really fine ensemble is adaptability and it’s fascinating to compare Hassan Shakur (for example) and his relationship with Donald Vega, with the one that the bassist has enjoyed with Monty Alexander since time immemorial in a manner of speaking.

In the aptly titled “Consider’ the group holds you rapt at a slow, but never stilted tempo; the players have to contend with a still more spacious approach from Monty Alexander, which they do superbly, while in “The Gathering” they’re immediately responsive (Donald Vega in particular) to Mr. Alexander’s swerves of tempo and phrasing. There’s no disputing the greatness of Monty Alexander as a pianist, but it’s Donald Vega’s selfless approach that I find more compelling. Mr. Vega is simultaneously the more human and the more deeply spiritual of the two and this is conveyed vividly in these performances. The pleasure is completed by the wonderfully warm and natural ambience of Rising Jazz Stars Studios in Beverly Hills, beautifully caught by George Klabin and Fran Gala. I, for one, can’t wait for the next instalment, if ever there is to be one.

Track List: Eleuthera; 3000 Miles Ago; Compassion; Slippery; Consider; Mango Rengue; Renewal; You Can See; Sweet Lady; The Gathering.

Personnel: Donald Vega, Piano, arranger; Anthony Wilson, Guitar; Hasaan Shakur, Bass; Lewis Nash, Drums.

Label: Resonance Records
Release date: June 2015
Website: donaldvega.com
Running time: 1:03:03
Buy music on: amazon

About Donald Vega

Classically-trained in his native Nicaragua, Vega immigrated to the United States at age 14 and began learning the language of jazz from mentor Billy Higgins at The World Stage and later with bassist John Clayton at the University of Southern California. He went on to graduate from Manhattan School of Music and The Juilliard School where he studied with piano great, Kenny Barron. Vega currently performs internationally as the pianist for world renowned bassist Ron Carter’s Golden Striker Trio.

Vega’s debut album, Tomorrows, was released in 2008 to rave reviews. In his sophomore album, Spiritual Nature, he is joined by the rhythm section of bassist Christian McBride and drummer Lewis Nash, where he explores the marriage of jazz, Latin and classical music. Spiritual Nature was released on the Resonance Records label August 2012. It stayed at the top of the jazz charts for several weeks, reaching all the way to #1.

Based in Milton, Ontario, Canada, Raul is a poet, musician and an accomplished critic whose profound analysis is reinforced by his deep understanding of music, technically as well as historically.

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Featured Albums

Adrien Brandeis: Siempre Más Allá

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Roberto Jr. Vizcaino, Adrien Brandeis, Roberto Vizcaino Guillot - Photo Nayeli Mejia
Roberto Vizcaíno Jr., Adrien Brandeis, Roberto Vizcaíno Guillot - Photo: Nayeli Mejia.

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.

Adrien Brandeis: Siempre Más Allá
Adrien Brandeis: Siempre Más Allá

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.

Deo gratis…

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 [9]

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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