All that is unusual and unexpected about this recording – even before you get to listen to a note of it – is encapsulated in the instrument used to express this exquisite music, and it is the fact that it is played on the clarinet. Most of us are so accustomed to the fact that if the music is Afro-Cuban it must be played on the piano together with a conguero and/or a bàtá player. But this spotless performance by clarinetist Ernesto Vega turns all of that on its proverbial head. Mr Vega’s playing is so clean, clear and precise and contained within the seemingly cavernous and woody reed, and the thought behind everything he plays is so unassailable, that to listen to him is to feel safe with music that is so often alien to our perception of it.
Mr Vega never seems to pull phrases around to the risky degree that the elder statesman from his neck of the woods – Paquito D’Rivera – might sometimes do; nor is there ever a sense of the egomania of many virtuoso players in Mr Vega’s performance and this is an enormous relief because, again, Mr Vega’s performance eschews bending of the tuning as he plays through the melody in its simplest, most pristine form, stripping it almost completely of unnecessary ornamentation.
The music of Ernesto Vega on this album has a chamber performance quality to it, thanks in a large part to the presence of the power-trio of pianist Harold López Nussa, bassist Gastón Joya and drummer Ruy Adrián López Nussa. There is also a strong sense of dance behind this music (balletic during the slower pieces) and when Mr Vega chooses to pull up the pace in the faster ones the pulse of what he plays is driven by a continual, metronomic tick that, although inaudible, is constantly transferred from Mr Vega to us, his listeners. That heartbeat is especially warmly felt in the exquisite and minutely-crafted “Regálame un Danzón”.
The studio conditions of the disc work particularly well for the intimacy of these pieces – the sound is perfectly balanced for depth and clarity – and the complete absence of reverberation keeps the deep rumble of Mr Joya’s contrabass separate from the thunderous kick of Ruy Adrián López Nussa’s bass drum. This also makes for an intense connection with the notes that glide through the bore of the clarinet.
By the time the congas join the fray on “My Cuban Soul” and ever after through the misty emotion of “Un Bolero con Sentimiento”, “Querido New Orleans” and the final “Sonsito Pa’ Gozá” you will be drawn into this music like never before. As a result – and unto the end of the disc – it becomes clear that for all those reasons and the sheer brilliance of Mr Vega’s performance, this is one of those “essential” discs that you will want to (as I do) play over and over again, always finding something new to cheer about.
Track list – 1: Camino al Prado; 2: Guajira Joropo; 3: My Good Friend; 4: One for Emiliano; 5: Regálame un Danzón; 6: My Cuban Soul; 7: Un Bolero con Sentimiento; 8: Querido New Orleans; 9: Sonsito Pa’ Gozá
Personnel – Ernesto Vega: clarinet, melódica (1); Harold López Nussa: piano (1 – 4, 6 – 9); Gastón Joya: contrabass; Ruy Adrián López Nussa: drums; Alejandro Falcón: piano (5); Edgar Martínez: congas (4, 6)
Released – 2019
Label – Blackwood & Sound
Runtime – 51:16