Oscar Hernández and the Spanish Harlem Orchestra [SHO] have set the bar so high for the kind of Afro-Caribbean ensemble musicianship that no one but the SHO itself can raise that bar – which it does every time a new album is created. Of the iconic medium-sized and larger ensembles playing Afro-Caribbean music today none can match their degree of sophistication and interpretation of composition and improvisation.
And so, once again the degree of balance and integration – on the repertoire on Imágenes Latinas – of the melody, harmony and rhythm, of exploration, individuality and tradition is elegantly maintained throughout.
The award-winning SHO is renowned both for the originality of composition and the energetic interpretation of mambo and other dance forms and the gliding elegance of more romantic songs such as boleros and others. Listening to the instrumental portions of each song – “Llegó la Hispánica” and “Imágenes Latinas”, you will be awe-struck at the taut conducting by Mr Hernández as the musicians intertwine their ensemble voices, soar heavenward in their soli.
The singers at the front end of the music attack their parts with blazing conviction in the choruses and the wonderful solo singing. The spiraling and rippling energy of “Sentimiento y Son” is a marvelous example of this.
In all of this Mr Hernández’s voice – not as a pianist this time around – but as a composer must never be lost on the listening audience. In paying tribute – as he and the SHO does here – to Jerry González and Andy González, Manny Oquendo and Barry Rogers, Mr Hernández also reveals the sinewy muscularity of his own writing – his grasp of tonal colour and rhythmic intensity which he applies to melodies such as “Llegó la Hispánica” is extraordinarily distinctive with its exploratory chromaticism and rich sonorities.
Jeremy Bosch [“Vestido de Flores”], Marco Bermúdez [together with Gil López on “Mi Amor Sincero”] and Carlos Cascante [“La Música Latina”] also make suave contributions.
Most impressive – as always – is the monumental wall of harmony and rhythm that is built by musicians who are not only adept at reading and interpreting charts, but at performing their roles [in ensemble and when soloing] with extraordinary idiomatic imagination and grace. All of this, of course, means that whenever the SHO creates music it not only robustly captures the rich traditions to which this music belongs, while also contributing enormous riches to the musical continuum as well.
Tracks – 1: Llegó la Hispánica; 2: Imágenes Latinas; 3: Vestido de Flores; 4: De mi para tí; 5: Romance Divino; 6: Como te Amo; 7: Mambo 2021; 8: Sentimiento y Son; 9: Cuando la Hispánica Toca; 10: Mi Amor Sincero; 11: La Música Latina
Musicians – Oscar Hernández: piano and musical director; Marco Bermúdez: vocals and coro; Carlos Cascante: vocals and coro; Jeremy Bosch: vocals, coro and flute; Manuel “Maneco” Ruiz: trumpet; Alex Norris: trumpet; Doug Beavers: trombone; Juan Gabriel Lakunza: trombone; Mitch Frohman: baritone saxophone and flute; Jerry Madera: bass; Luisito Quintero: timbales, maracas and güiro; George Delgado: congas; Jorge González: bongos
Released – 2022
Label – Ovation Records [OV – SHO – 61]
Runtime – 57:31
Featured photo of Oscar Hernández by Luxe Creative Imaging
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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