The celebrated ballet by Piotr Tchaikovsky – The Nutcracker – became such a worldwide success in the composer’s lifetime that he [Tchaikovsky himself] made a selection of eight of the numbers from the ballet before the ballet’s December 1892 première, forming The Nutcracker Suite, Op. 71a, intended for concert performance. The ballet [and the suite] has become so successful since then that it has been adapted and performed in a myriad of musical iterations, styles and dialects – from a 1960 version by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn and later as a ballet set during the Harlem Renaissance by dance choreographer Donald Byrd [not the trumpeter] and performed as The Harlem Nutcracker in 1996.
The work has also become the mainstay of Christmastime entertainment and this makes it the ideal time for this wonderful version – The Pan American Nutcracker Suite – by Joe McCarthy’s New York Afro Bop Alliance Big Band. What set Mr McCarthy’s version of the 8-part suite apart from any other version is that it is evocative and resonates with the sound of The Americas from the proverbial coast to coast and from north to south of the continent. But that’s not all. With characteristic aplomb the musicians of the New York Afro Bop Alliance ignite the music of The Suite by propelling it right out of the gate with a vibrant version of the “Overture”.
Among the credits of this recording is one that you have to pay attention to. It is the one listed on the back of the package that credits Mr McCarthy and his writing partner Vince Norman as having “composed and arranged” the work. It may take a bit of a leap of faith to come to terms with this credit when you read it. However, listening to the most popular movements of The Suite – “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy”, “Dance of the Reed Flutes” and especially “Waltz of the Flowers”, the latter of which morphs from a waltz to an ebullient joropo llanero, and is a work of pure genius – you realise that not only has the melodies of the various component movements been re-arranged, but there are so many parts that have been re-invented as well.
All of this redounds rather well not only for Mr McCarthy and Mr Norman, but also for the entire ensemble. Each musician shows himself to be a marvelous reader and idiomatic interpreter that brings to life the artistic vision of both Tchaikovsky, and Mr McCarthy and Mr Norman [who conducts the ensemble whilst Mr McCarthy leads the musical fireworks display. And what a fine display it is indeed. The performance is run through as if by a well-oiled machine bringing a liquid grace to Tchaikovsky’s timeless suite. Soli are short and with Mr McCarthy’s ability to drum so eloquently “in the pocket”, that each musical excursion returns the band right back into the perfect rhythm – be it a mambo, rumba or joropo without ever crash-landing as if on the musical runway.
A five-star performance from end to end, but then you’d expect nothing less of a band – with a super-constellation of stars such as pianist Luis Perdomo, bassist Boris Kozlov, percussionist Samuel Torres, trombonist Ryan Kaberle, trumpeter Alex Norris and others – so masterfully led by Mr McCarthy…
Tracks – 1: Overture; 2: March; 3: Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy; 4: Trepak; 5: Arabian Dance; 6: Chinese Dance; 7: Dance of the Reed Flutes; 8: Dance of the Flowers
Musicians – Vince Norman: session conductor; Joe McCarthy: drums and bandleader; Boris Kozlov: bass; Luis Perdomo: piano; Samuel Torres: percussion; Vinny Valentino: guitar; Andrew Gould: lead alto saxophone; Alejandro Avilés; alto saxophone; Ben Kono: tenor saxophone; Luis Hernández: tenor saxophone; Frank Basile: baritone saxophone; Nick Marchione: lead trumpet; John Chudoba: trumpet; Brandon Lee: trumpet; Alex Norris: trumpet; Mark Patterson: lead trombone; Ryan Kaberle: trombone; John Yao: trombone; James Borowski: bass trombone
Released – 2022
Label – Angelface Records
Runtime – 38:19
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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