There appears to be a sudden rush on the part of many musicians who migrated to the United States—and some who have not—to put out a recording in which they celebrate pro patria. Edward Simon’s Venezuelan Suite is no exception and certainly one of the most significant creative musical achievements by a musician celebrating the home of the musician’s birth. The suite is divided into four parts with a kind of coda at the end. Whether intentional or not this division mirrors the T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets though by no means reminiscent of Chick Corea’s musical interpretation of them. However, Mr. Simon has raised the cultural and musical topography and anthropology of his homeland by melting folk forms into great swathes of land, thereby narrating an aspect of his country’s music. Then he goes further: by adding unbridled forms of improvisation to the musical progress of each chart he gathers the folk forms into a gigantic jazz metaphor stretching his own musical melange into a greater narrative of the emergent joy that runs through the suite. The result is a truly beautiful and romantic view of the heart of Venezuela.
Mr. Simon has done remarkable work on this record. And here is why: The pianist has advanced the folk forms by his arrangements of the forms thereof. He has, for instance, re-orchestrated a typical joropo on “Barinas” adding bass clarinet, tenor saxophone and, in the joropo’s underbelly, joining the bass clarinet, the beautiful gravitas of the double bass, with sweeping ostinato passages. All the while, this is conjoined by an elevating piano and a free-flying flute. This opens up dramatic new musical colours as the timbres of reeds and woodwinds mix and enrich the colours and textures of the piece. The sequence where the cuatro of Jorge Glem—who plays exquisitely throughout—dances around the bass ostinato is truly memorable and when Edmar Castañeda joins in the music is truly memorable.
“Caracas” is based on a syncopated merengue and is beautifully executed. Tenor saxophonist Mark Turner and John Ellis once again take control of the sequence where the most innovation takes place. In Latin America as in Venezuela as well, music and dance is de rigueur. Often it is the crowning glory of many of these societies that have deep respect for their folk artists. But Caracas is a city like any other and sometimes sadness can come in the way of joy. Mr. Simon captures this melancholia in the arrangements played by bass clarinet and tenor saxophone. These instruments conjure up similar images and colours to those of the cover and together these add a certain magnificence to the whole album. “Mérida” and “Maracaibo”—different provinces altogether from the state of Barinas and the city of Caracas come close to mixing romanticism with reality. The music is at once stately and suggests that the element of sadness—great sadness—is something quite real.
So ultimately does Edward Simon’s album succeed where it wanted to go? Perhaps, but while the music is exquisite in pure musical terms and succeeds in expressing his undying love for his homeland and because its palette of colours are of undying beauty, it might, given where Venezuelans are at in terms of time and place, this may be just a bit too much of a romanticised view of a country in transition.
Track List: Barinas; Caracas; Mérida; Maracaibo; El Diablo Suelto.
Personnel: Edward Simon: piano; Adam Cruz: drums; Roberto Koch: bass; Marco Granados: flute; Mark Turner: tenor saxophone; Jorge Glem: cuatro; Leonardo Granados: maracas; Luis Quintero: percussion (1, 2, 4); John Ellis: bass clarinet (1 – 4); Edmar Castañeda: harp (1).
Edward Simon on the web: edwardsimon.com
Label: Sunnyside Records | Release date: January 2014
Reviewed by: Raul da Gama
About Edward Simon and Ensemble Venezuela
Bringing together some of the finest improvising musicians of his generation, in 2003 Simon founded Ensemble Venezuela as a vehicle for exploring the affinities between jazz and Venezuelan music. Its mission is the exploration of the marriage between these styles through the creation of new works and arrangements of compositions by Venezuelan masters. In 2005 Chamber Music America awarded Simon a grant to compose his “Venezuelan Suite”, a work that crosses the boundaries between jazz, chamber music and Venezuelan folk music. “Venezuelan Suite” is undoubtedly Simon’s most important work to date. It inspired the creation of a series of abstract paintings by artist Ellen Priest: “Jazz Paintings on Paper: Improvisations on the Venezuela Suite.” On February 24, 2007, while Simon was artist-inresidency at Ursinus College in Collegeville, Pennsylvania, Ensemble Venezuela performed the “Venezuelan Suite” at the Philip & Muriel Berman Museum of Art during an exhibition of Priest’s works, offering viewers and listeners the rare opportunity to experience both artists’ works together. On several occasions Simon has been invited to give presentations on the compositional process of this work, most notably at Stetson University in DeLand, Florida; Ursinus College in Collegeville, Pennsylvania; Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey; and the New York University Department of Music Colloquium in New York.
Since its inception, Simon’s “Venezuelan Suite” has formed an integral part of Ensemble Venezuela’s repertoire who, over the course of several enthusiastically received performances, has further developed and refined its interpretation of the work, achieving a level of maturity worthy of experiencing. Ensemble Venezuela has performed at important venues and festivals such as the Contemporary Arts Center in New Orleans; the San Francisco Jazz Festival; the Silvermine Guild Arts Center in New Canaan, Connecticut; the Walton Arts Center in Fayetteville, Arkansas; Joe’s Café at the Public Theater in New York; the Moab Music Festival; Centro de la Diversidad Cultural in Caracas, Venezuela; and Teatro de La Opera in Maracay, Venezuela.