With the release of ABUC it has become eminently clear that everything Roberto Fonseca has been writing and performing, and capturing on disc has been leading up to this proverbial watershed moment writing his personal Cuban story as well as his own chapter into the history of Afro-Cuban music. Fonseca, more than any other young pianist of Cuban origin, with the possible exceptions of Omar Sosa and Elio Villafranca, has clothed his persona in the African origin of music, following his ancestral grandmasters – Bebo and Chucho Valdés – of course. But in every respect: technique, expression and dynamic, as well as in his reverence for what you might consider the summation and perfection of tradition, Roberto Fonseca is his own man – graceful, passionate and a force of nature.
The Afro-Cuban contribution to contemporary music, especially to Jazz, has been seminal from the earliest days of the 20th century; probably even before that if you consider that the African influence came many years before even Louis Moreau Gottschalk came to Cuba in the middle of the 19th-century. Later, it was Dizzy Gillespie, who probably helped popularize the music with his legendary association with Chano Pozo, and the contributions of Machito and Mario Bauzá that ignited the fuse which led to the explosion – the tremors of which we still feel today. However, what remained in Cuba was a complex tradition coded in Santeria that evolved from Yoruba culture, indelibly imbued from the motherland. Melded into this was the inevitable influence of Spanish traditional dance music. If this seems like an over-simplification of the Afro-Cuban paradigm it is because a much larger space would be required to present a true dissertation of the musical diaspora. But like his musical ancestors Roberto Fonseca has also written several musical narratives into the modern history of Afro-Cuban music one chapter at a time throughout his impressive discography.
The music of ABUC marks the crest on his musical wave as it hits the shore with a thunderous crash, frothing and foaming in sun-splashed ecstasy. In his elaborate and absorbing notes that accompany the disc, one is struck (but not surprised) by the depth of Roberto Fonseca’s spirituality and also (again, not surprisingly) by his reverential approach to the Afro-Cuban tradition. It is true that he appears in dazzlingly virtuosic form throughout the disc, and that he is joined here by a galaxy of stellar musicians including Eliades Ochoa, Manuel “Guajiro” Mirabel, both from the legendary Buena Vista Social Club, and Rafael Lay Bravo and Roberto Espinosa Rodríguez from the equally legendary Orquesta Aragón, as well as young sensations, vocalist Daymé Arocena (another one of many talented artists fostered by Canada’s “Havana” Jane (Jane Bunnett) and her producer/trumpeter husband Larry Cramer, whose love for and deep understanding of Afro-Cuban music has never received all the attention it deserves). Also included on ABUC are guitarist Munir Hosn, the talented Brasilian percussionist Zé Luis Nascimento, the silken-voiced Mercedes Cortés Alfaro, among others. But the stars are only as good as the ensemble that sends them up into the stratospheric realm and here, Roberto Fonseca leads this large ensemble with his two rhythmic pillars bassist Yandy Martínez and drummer Ramsés “Dynamite” Rodríguez who also act as the glue that holds it all together.
If it is true that the whole is invariably greater than the sum of its parts, it is also true that without a leader to spearhead the music and bring to it the right balance of poise and profundity this disc would not really become the mesmeric narrative written in a series of fourteen distinctive chapters. It’s hard not to be hypnotised right from the opening track itself; a sterling tribute to Latin Jazz with Ray Bryant’s “Cubano Chant” as interpreted twice by Roberto Fonseca (a lyrical elegy appears at the end of the disc). The music ignites like a fire that is stoked one song at a time. It smoulders through “Contradanza Del Espíritu”, burns with a blue flame through “Sagrado Corazón”, explodes like tightly bound sticks of dynamite in the short interlude, “Tierra Santa Santiago De Cuba” and smoulders again through “Habanera” and the glorious bolero, “Después” with the smoky vocals of Mercedes Cortés Alfaro and a beautifully translucent, muted trumpet performance by Manuel “Guajiro” Mirabel’s trumpet. At every turn Roberto Fonseca makes magical use of tone colour through his masterful use of the piano, constantly urging the other musicians to further explore their instruments’ capacities for harmonic complexity and haunting expression. Through it all, Roberto Fonseca is in particularly radiant form. Despite being the led voice throughout his arrangements – together with those by Joaquin Betancourt, Mark Mullins and Javier Zalba – are so imaginative that only occasionally does one become aware of the music being divided into several instruments.
Such is the dramatic effect of the music on the ear, that one is apt to find oneself quite breathless by the time the hypnotic “Velas Y Flores” comes around, complete with the drama and menace of spoken word and bottom-register-heavy tones and textures. The gorgeous exposition of Afro-Cuban roots concludes with a dazzling solo performance by Roberto Fonseca as he explores Ray Bryant’s “Cubano Chant” once again, this time with a completely different set of harmonics and a near-mystically fading rhythm at the end. A masterful performance such as this on ABUC is going to be hard to top. Nevertheless one waits for the next episode from Roberto Fonseca’s epic journey with bated breath.
Track List: Cubano Chant; Afro Mambo; Tumbao De La Unidad; Contradanza Del Espíritu; Tierra Santa; Sagrado Corazón; Family; Tierra Santa Santiago De Cuba; Habanera; Soul Guardians; Asere Monina Bonco; Después; Velas y Flores; Cubano Chant (Solo Piano Version).
Personnel: Roberto Fonseca: piano, keyboards and vocals (6), percussion (8); Daymé Arocena: vocals (2); Carlos Calunga: vocals (2); Eliades Ochoa: vocals and guitar (3); Alexey Rodríguez “…el tipo ese”: vocals (10); Munir Hossn: electric guitar (3, 5); Sekou Bah: electric guitar (10); Joe Gore: acoustic guitar (7); Drissa Sidibé: kamalen ngoni (10); Rafael Lay Bravo (Orquesta Aragón): vocals (7); Roberto Espinosa Rodríguez (Orquesta Aragón): vocals (7); Manuel “Guajiro” Mirabel: trumpet (12); Yandy Martínez: double bass (1 – 7, 9 – 13), percussion (8); Ramsés “Dynamite” Rodríguez: drums (1 – 7, 9 – 13), percussion (6, 8), vocals (6); Inor Sotolongo: percussion (1, 2); Zé Luis Nascimento: percussion (5, 7, 10); Yaroldy Abreu Robles: percussion (8, 11m 12); Eddy de Armas Camejo: trumpet (1, 2); Lázaro Amauri Oviedo: trumpet (1, 2); Roberto García López: trumpet (4); Bobby Campo: trumpet (5, 7, 8); Yuniet Lombado Prieto: alto saxophone (1, 2); Emir Santa Cruz Hernández: tenor saxophone (1, 2, 4); Alonzo Bowens: tenor saxophone (5, 7, 8); Ben Ellman: baritone saxophone (5, 8); Trombone Shorty: trombone (1); Joel Enrique Sagó Bell: trombone (1, 2); Yoandy Argudin Feffel: trombone (1, 2, 4); Mark Mullins: trombone (5, 7, 8); Javier Zalba Suarez: alto saxophone (4), baritone saxophone (2); Policarpo “Polo” Tamayo: flute (11); Mercedes Cortés Alfaro: vocals (12).
Release date: October 2016
Running time: 52:57
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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