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Joe McCarthy & The New York Afro Bop Alliance Big Band: Upwards

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Joe McCarthy – The New York Afro Bop Alliance Big Band: Upwards

A rare, albeit singular feeling of joy while living under a lockdown due to the pandemic is the receipt, in the mail, of a recording by Joe McCarthy and his band The New York Afro Bop Alliance. The joy is magnified, of course, because this recording is his finest, so far. To be sure this is Mr McCarthy’s “New York Afro Bop Alliance Big Band” and it is staffed with some of the finest musicians to inhabit a studio. Also, to be sure, this music was recorded in April of 2019 – somewhat before the coronavirus dwelt among us – but it has been released as the world struggles with this pandemic. Yet, while we all yearn for the sparkle of joy, this recording delivers all of that and so much more.

The album is appropriately entitled Upward, which in fact takes its name from a piece by the group’s pianist, Manuel Valera. The work was written some years ago and first appeared on Mr Valera’s own New Cuban Express recording [MAVO, 2012]. The original was a sextet performance featuring the incomparable alto saxophonist and chekeré player, Yosvany Terry. This new version has been expanded and completely re-harmonised for this big band. It is a questing, effervescent work and with its eloquent melody, lustrous harmony and diabolically swerving melody, it sets the tone for the entire album: one that is brimming with the unfettered joys of music. Mr Valera’s solo is beautifully translucent and trombonist John Yao, plays [Mr Terry’s part] from the original version; his dolorous trombone bringing a somewhat bittersweet tone-texture to the piece.

Mr Valera also contributes the balletic song “Isabelita”, which is a fine song too, its architecture once again built on maddeningly intense rhythmic foundation. The pianist and trumpeter Dave Smith share solo duties and both of the soloists – albeit brief – are endlessly inventive as they bring endlessly inventive ideas filtered through musicianship that is born of a kaleidoscope of colours, key changes and moods. Equally significantly, the big band adds elegance and lustre to the score. Other singular compositions are also contributed by guitarist Vinnie Valentino. Both “J Ban Jazz” [dedicated to bassist John Benitez] and “Positano” [so named, we are told in the notes, after a colourful Italian town] are superbly crafted pieces and rendered in highly polished performances full of nuance, wit and spirit. There is, of course, much more in terms of music, orchestration and performance – such as Boris Kozlov’s “Nostalgia in Time” [dedicated to the late bassist Charles Fambrough].

Members of Joe McCarthy’s illustrious ensemble The New York Afro Bop Alliance Big Band

Incidentally Mr Kozlov’s participation here is something of a coup for Mr McCarthy’s band. There are few better bassists than Mr Kozlov playing today and his performances on this recording are ample proof of this. “Positano” is one such piece, where the bassist growls with bittersweet pathos and rumbling gravitas, and shows why he’s so highly regarded. However, this album belongs to Mr McCarthy. The drummer and leader treats every work with painstaking care and inspires his musicians to interiorise the narratives and emotions of each work and give of themselves with metaphoric ingenuity. Moreover his approach to percussion [always ably aided and abetted by the wonderful Samuel Torres and the partnership is on exquisite display on “Caravan”] is wonderfully modernist and he gives melodies and harmonies a [rhythmic] percussive attack that is thunderously vivid and compelling. His playing is beautiful throughout. It’s no wonder that this is why, with its eight gleaming gems of music, Upwards ends up sounding as the best album that Mr McCarthy and The Afro Bop Alliance have recorded so far.

Track list – 1: Upwards; 2: J Ben Jazz; 3: Caravan; 4: Five for Elvin; 5: Nostalgia in Time; 6: Isabelita; 7: Afternoon in Paris; 8: Positano

Personnel – Joe McCarthy: drums and band leader; Woodwinds – Matt Hong, Kristy Norter, Ben Kono, Dave Riekenberg, Eden Bareket; Trumpets – Nick Marchione, Raul Agraz, Bryan Davis, Dave Smith, Vinnie Valentino: guitar; Manuel Valera: piano; Boris Kozlov: basses; Samuel Torres: percussion

Released – 2020
Label – ZOHO Music [ZM201909]
Runtime – 1:10:21

Afro Bop Alliance Big Band - Revelation

Suggested reading:
Afro Bop Alliance Big Band: Revelation

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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