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Michel Herrera: Nueva Era

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Saxophonist Michel Herrera

In a country like Cuba – where music education programmes have tended to be designed for the 19th century, and where the European-style conservatoire has reigned supreme – the focus would naturally tend towards orchestral instruments such as the piano, violin, cello and others. Despite the fact that traditions have always been vibrantly alive and that ancestral storytelling, music and dance forms have thrived and have been syncretized into both spiritual and secular music, even young Cubans seem to graduate towards either European, concert-style instruments, or traditional ones such as the tumbadora and other percussion instruments. With the spread of US neo-colonialisation in South America and the advent of the radio, a fiery torch was lit – one that illuminated the Black-American called jazz. Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker brought with them not only Bebop, but a rhythmic invention that seemed to combust with a nuclear energy similar to that of clave and tumbao.

But even as fascination with the trumpet and other brass instruments such as the trombone grew, somehow the saxophone didn’t quite take off. As a result the current tribe of Cuban saxophonists is a very small one. After Paquito D’Rivera took his alto horn north with him, and after Carlos Averhoff, Irving Acao and others receded from the Cuban jazz scene, and Yosvany Terry Cabrera moved to the US, it was left to saxophone masters such as Javier Zalba – together with the other members of the Zsaxos Quartet, Yunier Lombida, Leonardo Jiménez, Aliet González, and César López – together with the other members of the Cuban Sax Quintet, Yamil Scherry, German Velázco, Alfred Thompson, Evaristo Denis – and Carlos Miyares, to keep the home fires burning. That certainly helped Michel Herrera, the brilliant young saxophone player who – already fired up by the music of Wayne Shorter and other jazz saxophonists who came after – create a tidal wave of new Afro-Cuban jazz in Cuba. Mr Herrera sculpts bold architectural inventions in his often electronics-laced performances which fly in the face of convention while still being firmly rooted in – or returning to clave-roots after long, inter-galactic musical sojourns with the like-minded members of his Tierra Madre Project.

This album, Nueva Era – a CD and DVD – features all of his sonic adventures with a steaming-hot mix of original work, traditional music and even a few jazz classics and standards from the American Songbook. In everything he does – in the studio and on stage – Mr Herrera comes across as a musician charged with a kind of restless and visceral energy. This overflows into his music, which hums – and often roars – like a mighty sonic machine on the verge of being propelled into interstellar space. He powers his saxophone with lungs-full of air, breathed out in super-charged hot breaths through a reed that must surely feel the heat of his searing melodic and harmonic excursions. Joined [on the CD] by trumpeter Mayquel González who is [like-mindedly] also forward-thinking, and [on the DVD] by Thommy Lowry García, who is a lot mellower and plays with a wide and wickedly swaggering swing, Mr Herrera powers his way through two hours of music.

The CD features magically performed repertoire by Mr Herrera and his ensembles [in various combinations]. Beautifully crafted arrangements of beguiling variety and sensuousness unfold in every steamy hot, caressed phrase. His chosen material is a judicious mix of originals with some unexpected re-inventions of classic Latin-American music: an electrifying take on Consuelo Velázquez’s “Bésame mucho”, a mesmerising version sustained by its spacey harmonies and rhythms, a refreshing take on Emiliano Salvador’s “Post Vision” and an unexpectedly fresh arrangement of Thelonious Monk’s “Round Midnight” featuring the seductive voice of Yanet Valdés among others. The disc ends with a racy arrangement of Wayne Shorter’s “Witch Hunt”.

The DVD is no less powerful. It gathers music from a live performance in Havana from 2018. Beautifully photographed in shadowy black and white, with smoky shadows thrown in high relief by dramatic lighting, the mood of the music is thus suitably enhanced. A small cast of stellar guests includes several musicians of the saxophonist’s generation. The pinnacle of the concert is the memorable duet with the inimitable pianist Ernán López–Nussa, who joins Mr Herrera on “All the Things You Are”. Other celebrated young musicians include guitarist Héctor Quintana and trombonist Eduardo Sandoval. The dazzling concert seems to conclude all too soon, though not before the dusky-voiced Idania Valdés joins Mr Herrera in a sumptuous “Interludio” soars to a climactic ending with the entire force of Mr Herrera’s Tierra Madre ensemble in attendance.

Track list – CD – 1: Maitte; 2: Retoño; 3: El reinado de los duendes; 4: Bésame mucho; 5: Nueva era; 6: Chris Potter Groove; 7: Post vision; 8: Mary; 9: Round Midnight; 10: Interludio; 11: Witch hunt.

Personnel – CD – Michel Herrera: saxophones; Mayquel González: trumpet and flugelhorn; Alejandro Falcón: piano; Alejandro Meroño: piano; Aldo López-Gavilán: piano; Yandy Martínez: bass; Rafael Aldama: bass; Alain Ladrón de Guevara: drums; Ramsés Rodríguez: percussion; Yanet Valdés: vocals [9].

Track list – DVD – 1: Maitte; 2: Retoño; 3: El reinado de los duendes; 4: Nueva era; 5: Chris Potter Groove; 6: All the Things You Are; 7: Realidad y Fantasia; 8: Desierto; 9: Interludio; 10: Ensemble

Personnel – DVD – Michel Herrera: saxophones, [soprano saxophone 9]; Thommy Lowry García: trumpet and flugelhorn [1 – 5, 7 – 10]; Alejandro Meroño: piano [1, 2, 3, 4, 9, 10]; Tochi Iwasaky: synthesizers [1, 2, 4, 5, 10]; Rafael Aldama: bass; 1 – 5, 7 – 10]; Alain Ladrón de Guevara: drums [1 – 5, 7 – 10]; Héctor Quintana: guitar [1 – 5, 7 – 10]; Jesús Pupo: piano [3, 7 – 9]; Ernán López -Nussa: piano [6]; Eduardo Sandoval: trombone [5, 8 – 10]; Delvis Ponce: alto saxophone [9, 10]; Idania Valdés: vocals [7, 9, 10]; Grupo Frasis: strings [3]

Released – 2018
Label – EGREM [CD+DVD 1521]
Runtime – CD 1:00:36 DVD 1:10:18

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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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