If Brasilian music has spread – across continents – and has been kept alive as far as Japan, thanks to the Choro Club of Japan, it should come as no surprise that a wave of Afro-Caribbean rhythms should also have crashed ashore in Japan [listen to Sayaka], and in Hong Kong. In the Island that throbs with life, and seduced by the hypnotic pulse of Afro-Caribbean music, producer, dancer and artist Gia Fu, forged an alliance in faraway Chicago with the eminent Puerto Rican bandleader and composer Ángel Meléndez.
It turns out that the impresario and the big band leader are not such strange bedfellows after all and to prove it they have combined forces for Ángel Meléndez X Big Band Máquina to produce an album full or impassioned energy. The music is born of a sense of freshness, energy and infectious virtuoso skills that roll over brass, vocalists and percussionists with equal zeal, a warming conviction and swaggering verve.
Afro-Caribbean music arises out of songful melodies echoing and evoking charming narratives, lifted to great heights with burbling harmonies and frenetic rhythms tossed between vocalists, percussionists and instrumentalists who constantly provoke one another into rising to the occasion. The result is high-energy music, the pace and pulse of which never seems to let up unless its musicians are making room for the dangling conversation of a bolero.
These accomplished, strongly communicative musicians do just that throughout the repertoire of this fine album. Youthful ebullience abounds. There is never a dull moment as vocalists – principally vocalists – drive the music into the corners occupied by brass and woodwinds, who propel their harmonic variations into the thundering lines, occupied by the rhythm section – piano, bass and percussion colourists.
The hour-long recital features an all-star crew of musicians, vocalists and pianists, who often step into the limelight every once and a while. There are several heavyweights from the Puerto Rican musical universe [apart from Mr Meléndez, that is] and a new generation of young talent, Richie Bastar on bongos, Jan Duclerc on trumpet, Sammy García on congas, Pedro Pérez on bass; superb vocalists Tito Allen, Hermán Olivera, Rico Walker, Primi Cruz, Willito Otero, brilliant pianists Gilberto “Pulpo” Colón, Jr., Luis Marín, Carlos García, who is also a featured vocalist on track 9, and the ineffably magnificent Juan L. Picorelli.
Love hangs heavily in the air as the vocalists and instrumentalists conjure characters that twirl and leap in an imaginary and interminable salsa-dance that arises out of – and focused on – expressively articulated performances on [to name a few songs] Mi Son, Bailen Mi Guaguancó and Vuelve A Mí. Soloing is eschewed in favour of compelling ensemble performances.
Pianists sometimes enjoy featured outings. But all told this is an album where the spotlight is on the rhythmic edges – which are truly sharp – and the melodic contours of songs – which are buttery and smooth. A highly recommended volume of music between the artistically-illustrated and designed package.
Kudos to Project Director Ralph Riley for his participation in the production team of this project, recorded at Rolo’s Studio [Guaynabo, Puerto Rico], Nino Segarra Studios [Puerto Rico] and Allertone Studio [The Bronx, New York]. This album is offered on both CD and vinyl [high quality] formats.
Tracks – 1: Nuestro Amor; 2: El Que No Sufre, No Vive; 3: Xiomara; 4: Mi Son; 5: Bailen Mi Guaguancó; 6: Lo Más Difícil; 7: Tan Largo El Olvido; 8: Porque Me Engañas; 9: Confiada; 10: Todos Vuelven; 11: Naima; 12: Vuelve A Mí
Musicians – Ángel Meléndez: music director, trombone, arranger and composer [6, 7, 11, 12]; Tito Allen: lead vocals , Hermán Olivera: lead vocals , Rico Walker: lead vocals , Primi Cruz: lead vocals , Carlos García: lead vocals  and piano [2, 4, 6]; Willito Otero: lead vocals ; Ángel Meléndez, Gerardo Rivas, Jorge Yadiel Santos, Juan L. Picorelli  and Gia Fu : coro; Richie Bastar: bongó; Sammy García and Gerardo Rivas [1, 3]: congas; Pedro Pérez: bass; Gilberto “Pulpo” Colón, Jr: piano [7, 8, 9], Luis Marín: piano [1, 3, 5, 10, 11]; Juan L. Picorelli: timbales and minor percussion; Jan Duclerc, Jesús Alonso, José Ruiz and Jake Miranda: trumpets; Jorge Díaz, Jerry Rivas Jr., Lester Pérez, Cesar Ayala and Elliut Cintrón [solo on 3]: trombones ; Sammy Vélez: baritone saxophone; Angel Torres and Frankie Pérez: alto saxophone; Roberto Calderón, Hugo Díaz and Josué Urbina: tenor saxophones
Released – 2021
Label – Kong Records [KRS – 01A]
Runtime – 1:00:46
YouTube Audio – Gia Fu Presents Ángel Meléndez X Big Band Máquina: Naima
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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