New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Category: latin music

Up Close at Legendary Cuban Singer Omara Portuondo’s Farewelll Tour

At this point in her career, Omara Portunondo can do whatever she wants. The legendary Buena Vista Social Club singer has roots in Afro-Cuban music as deep as pretty much anyone ever has. Being Cuban, she hasn’t had the chance to spend as much time playing in this country as other artists of similar stature from elsewhere around the globe. That’s downright tragic, especially since her current tour is billed as a farewell.

But she doesn’t sing like she’s on her way out. Sure, she’s in her eighties now  and there’s more flint in her voice than there was ten years or so ago. And she gets an escort onstage, sits when she sings and takes a break midway through the show. But she still has power in the lows and brightness in the highs.

Portuondo distinguished herself as one of the most elegant singers to come out of latin music, and salsa in particular, a long time ago. Her delivery is as articulate and nuanced as ever: even if Spanish is not your first language, she’s very easy to understand. If you manage to catch her on this “Ultimo Beso” tour,, there will be people in the crowd singing along: if you don’t know the words, just wait for the chorus, you’ll get it.

If Friday night’s show at a swanky, semi-new sub-basement boite in the Times Square area is the blueprint, expect pianist Roberto Fonseca to open the show and then lead the band – Andres Coayo on percussion, Ruly Herrera on drums and Yandy Martinez  on bass- through what could be a long, very eclectic ,mostly instrumental interlude midway through. These guys are equally skilled at guajira, rhumba, cha-cha and boleros, and  like their leader can shift effortlessly between those styles.

Although she stays in her seat for most of the set, Portuondo may practically do the limbo from her chair when she’s not setting off singalongs with the audience. Beyond what the band are playing, the musical backdrop may include synthy orchestration and samples emanating from a loop pedal or a sequencer in Fonseca’s collection of keyboards. Martinez will switch between electric and acoustic bass and really dig in on the lows when he bows. Coayo will be as subtle as the singer, since most of the material is on the slow and melancholy side, as he switches from bongos to chekere, but he’ll really energize the crowd and draw them into a fiery timbale solo.

Portuondo will engage the crowd more if she senses that most of them know the material. Friday evening, the bttersweet Adios Felicidad was a highlight: holler for it if the band doesn’t play it early on. They don’t make singers like Portuondo anymore: this is a fleeting chance to be glad that the two of you are alive at the same time when she can sing your disappointments away.

Pan-Latin Surrealism and a Jersey City Gig By the Individualistic J Hacha de Zola

“Is it dark enough for you?” J Hacha de Zola asks. “This singular sensation, this odd delegation, it never made any sense.” That’s a line from a smoldering, spacy Brian Jonestown Massacre-style soundscape on his new album Icaro Nouveau, streaming at Bandcamp.. Most of the other tracks on the eclectic bandleader’s record are a lot more rhythmic, ranging from salsa-rock to latin soul and what.could be south-of-the-border Nick Cave, to Tom Waits circa Rain Dogs, at his most boisterous. A lot of this album follows the same kind of  psychedelic tangents another New York tropical eclecticist, Zemog el Gallo Bueno, indulges in. Hacha de Zola’s dayjob is biochemistry: presumably, that pays for the lavish production and army of musicians (uncredited) here, horn section and all. He’s playing the album release show with his band tonight, April 18 at 9 PM at FM Jersey City; cover is $8

The first track, Anarchy, a swaggering,, sutrealist strut sets the stage for the rest of the album. El Chucho (Hooko) is a rapidfire, similarly anarchic Balkan cumbia, aswirl with brass, guitars, and noisy piano. On a Saturday has a vintage 70s latin soul groove: the bandleader’s energetic croak brings to mind Australian legend Rob Younger’s more recent projects on the mic. Interestingly, the next number, Juan Salchipapas, reminds of Younger’s original band, Aussie psychedelic punks Radio Birdman, at their most slinky and starry

A Song For Her is a staggering shot at tremoloing retro-Orbison Twin Peaks pop, bolstered by guitar overdubs bristling in both channels. The brooding, echoing, swaying, Doorsy bolero rock ballad A Fool’s Moon is the album’s strongest track. Ode to Ralph Carney – the late, lamented ex-Tom Waits saxophonist who was Hacha de Zolla’s “secret weapon” in earlier versions of the band – takes shape as a fond, slow New Orleans funeral march.

The band take a stab at oldschool soul wiht Super Squeaky (titles don’t seem to be anything more than random here) and close with Hacha’s Lament, a return to vintage latin soull If real oldschool surrealism – we’re talking the early 20th century kind – is your thing, along with umpteen retro styles, J Hacha de Zola is your man.

Slinky Colombian Party Music with Los Mochuelos at Barbes

When Los Mochuelos hit the stage at their most recent Barbes show earlier this month, there were maybe two people in the room. Then little by little, a crowd started to trickle in, and by half past eleven the place was packed.

This was on a Monday.

Even though Barbes is a working-class bar – at least as much as a bar in Park Slope in 2019 can be – the venue has a tradition of big Monday night shows. The house band, Chicha Libre used to pack ‘em in on Mondays for years. Lately there’s been a Colombian music scene developing, with monthly residencies by feral singer Carolina Oliveros’ Bulla en el Barrio – who play coastal trance-dance bulleregue – and also by a spinoff of that band, the flute-driven NYC Gaita Club. Los Mochuelos are the latest Colombian Monday night addition.

This particular Monday, the five-piece group played a lot of vallenato, but they also did a bunch of cumbias, a bouncy 1-4-5 tune that sounded like Veracruz folk and a big ballad that also could have been Mexican, but from further north. As Ariana Hellerman, founder of the Bryant Park Accordion Festival has pointed out, music played on that instrument tends to be as portable as the instrument itself. It’s hard to think of a more entertaining cultural cross-pollinator.

Harold Rodriguez (of tropical pop band Alma Mia) played that cross-pollinator, a button model, which tends to get a trebly, reedy sound. Counterbalancing that on bass, Sebastian Rodriguez (of wild psychedelic cumbia band Yotoco) started out with a booming presence, almost as if he had a standup bass. Over the crackle of the three-man percussion section, considering the material – a lot of hits from the 1960s and before – the experience conjured up a beachside gangster cabana of the mind.

Frontman/percussionist Christian Rodriguez sang a lot of party anthems and you-done-me-wrong songs, most of them in minor keys. As the show went on, the bass got treblier and punchier, and more serpentine. Because the accordion needed to be miked, the whole Barbes crew got into the act and made sure the sound mix was as pristine as possible. So much for a dead Monday night. Los Mochuelos are back at Barbes at around 9:30 on April 1, no joke.

A Mighty, Majestically Orchestrated, Ambitious Album and a Vanguard Stand This Week From Alto Saxophone Titan MIguel Zenon

You might not expect Miguel Zenon to open his latest album with a cantabile pastorale, but that’s exactly what he’s done. The alto saxophonist has made some amazing records over the years – his smoldering Oye! Live in Puerto Rico from 2013 is a favorite – but his most recent one is his most ambitious yet. You could say that Yo Soy la Tradicion is his Sketches of Spain, a collaboration with the magical, microtonally-inclined Spektral Quartet streaming at their music page.

Jazz sax and strings have a history that dates back to Charlie Parker; this is a lot closer to Astor Piazzolla at his most adventurous, or Bartok, than orchestrated swing. Zenon has yet another weeklong stand at the Vanguard starting tomorrow, March 12 with his quartet and continuing through the 17th, with sets at 8 and 10:30.

The Spektral Quartet – violinists Clara Lyon and Maeve Feinberg, violist Doyle Armbrust and cellist Russell Rolen – open the album with the rather stark, almost severely precise intro to Rosario, inspired by the Catholic rosary tradition; then Zenon flips the script and builds a bubbly dance overhead that brings to mind the similarly paradigm-shifting work of Argentine bandoneonist JP Jofre. It’s catchy, almost to the point of sentimentality.

Cadenas (Chains) draws on European 20th century minimalism as well as Puerto Rican line dances, the strings’ hypnotic, insistent acerbity balancing Zenon’s folksy, airy delivery. Then the sax and quartet switch roles, a neat touch.

Yumac may have roots in rural Puerto Rican folk music – the ttile is the town of Camuy, home to popular 50s songwriter German Rosario, spelled backwards – but the music comes across as a more harmonically complex take on Ernesto Lecuona’s anthemic mashup of Afro-Cuban themes and western classical orchestration.

Milagrosa is more balmy, an unexpectedly successful mashup of spaciously sequenced postbop sax and alternately rhythmic and lush string passages, with a crescendo midway through that’s as majestic as anything Zenon has ever written.

The album’s most gorgeous track is Viejo, shifting from troubled, massed Julia Wolfe-like insistence, to an unabashedly lyrical ballad with an elegaic cello solo followed by Zenon’s broodingly wafting melody. Zenon’s tone is more biting than Paul Desmond’s, but the lyricism here is very similar.

If Bartok had a thing for Spain instead of Tunisia, he might have written Cadenza: there are also echoes of wistul, uneasy Debussy. Again, Zenon brightens the ambience, this time with flamenco allusions. Imagine Ligeti trying to reduce a flamenco tune to simplest terms: that’s the outro.

The album’s most epic track is Promesa, a diptych of sorts that refers to the Catholic festival of the Three Kings. A pensive cello solo takes centerstage over a lush backdrop that recedes to a steady, minimalist pulse, Zenon building the longest solo here from gentle pastoral colors to lively, blues-tinged spirals. Then the atmosphere shifts to artfully pulsing variations on a lively alguinaldo jibaro country dance theme.

Piazzolla, or for that matter, Lecuona would have been proud to have written the anthemic final number, based on a variant of that style from the town of Villalba. Obviously, Zenon’s Vanguard stand this week isn’t likely to showcase a lot of this material; on the other hand, with a guy who’s been known to reinvent classic Sylvia Rexach boleros, you never know.

Chano Dominguez Brings His Saturnine Flamenco Piano Brilliance to Joe’s Pub Friday Night

The annual flamenco festival is happening around town next weekend, and as usual, fiery Spanish pianist Chano Dominguez is part of it. Perhaps better than any musician alive, he blends American jazz with flamenco for all the dark acerbity he can channel – which is a lot. He’s at Joe’s Pub this Friday, March 6 at 7 PM; cover is a little steep, $30, but he’s worth it. In fact, the show actually might sell out, so advance tix are a good idea.

His 2017 solo album Over the Rainbow  – streaming at Bandcamp – is a good introduction. It’s a mix of live and studio takes including both originals and classics from across the Americas. John Lewis’ Django proves to be a perfect opener, Dominguez building a lingering intro until he he adds subtle Spanish rhythm, a series of tasty, slithery cascades and finally some deviously muted syncopation. Likewise, he takes his time with Cuban composer Eliseo Grenet’s Drume Negrita, reinventing it as a balletesque strut rather than playing it as salsa, with a meticulous, downwardly ratcheting coda.

There are a couple of Monk tunes here. Evidence is amusingly tricky, switching back and forth between “gotcha!” pauses and a sagely bluesy insistence that swings just enough to keep it from being a march. Interesingly, Dominguez plays the more phantasmagorical Monk’s Dream a lot more straightforwardly, at the exact same tempo, with spiraling exactitude.

From its spring-loaded intro, to the clenched-teeth intensity of Dominguez’s drive through the first verse, to a bracing blend of cascade and pounce, the real showstopper here is an epic take of Violeta Parra’s Gracias A La Vida. He brings a similar, majestically circling intensity and then some trickily rhythmic fun to Cuban composer and frequent collaborator Marta Valdés’s Hacia Dónde.

The gorgeous take of Los Ejes De Mi Carreta, by Argentinean songwriter Atahualpa Yupanqui, simmers over catchy lefthand riffage, then grows more austere until Dominguez takes it out with a stampede.

His two originals here are dedicated to his kids. Mantreria shifts through intricate spirals, clever echo effects to saturnine, anthemic proportions and then back again. Marcel has a striking, steady, wistful yearning before Dominguez indulges in some boogie-woogie before shifting in a triumphantly gospel-flavored direction.

There’s also a ditty from the Wizard of Oz – no, it’s not If I Only Had a Brain.

Barbes: Home Base For NYC’s Best Bands

The problem with Barbes – and if you run a music blog, this can be a problem – is that the hang is as good as the bands. If you’re trying to make your way into the music room and run into friends, always a hazard here, you might not make it past the bar. Which speaks to a couple of reasons why this well-loved Park Slope boite has won this blog’s Best Brooklyn Venue award three times in the past ten years or so.

A Monday night before Thanksgiving week last year was classic. The scheduled act had cancelled, but there was still a good crowd in the house. What to do? Somebody called somebody, and by eleven there was a pickup band – guitar, keys, bass and drums – onstage, playing better-than-serviceable covers of Peruvian psychedelic cumbia hits form the 60s and 70s. The best was a slinky, offhandedly sinister take of Sonido Amazonico, the chromatic classic which has become the national anthem of chicha, as psychedelic cumbia is called in Peru. Where else in New York could you possibly hear something like this…on a Monday night?

On Thanksgiving night, the two Guinean expat guitarists who lead the Mandingo Ambassadors played a rapturously intertwining set that drew a more-or-less straight line back to the spiky acoustic kora music that preceded the state-sponsored negritude movement of the 1960s. Without the horns that sometimes play with the band, the delicious starriness of the music resonated more than ever.

The night after that, there was a solid klezmer pickup band in the house. The night after that – yeah, it was a Barbes weekend – started with pianist Anthony Coleman going as far out into free jazz as he ever does, followed by a psychedelic take on nostalgic 60s and 70s Soviet pop by the Eastern Blokhedz and then an even more psychedelic set by Bombay Rickey, who switched from spaghetti western to sick jamband versions of Yma Symac cumbias to surf rock, Bollywood and finally an ominous shout-out to a prehistoric leviathan that’s been dead for twenty thousand years.

Sets in late November and January left no doubt that Slavic Soul Party are still this city’s #1 Balkan brass party band, whether they’re playing twisted Ellington covers, percolating Serbian Romany hits or their own hip-hop influenced tunes. A pit stop here early before opening night of Golden Fest to catch the Crooked Trio playing postbop jazz standards was a potent reminder that bandleader Oscar Noriega is just as brilliant a drummer as he is playing his many reed instruments.

Who knew that trumpeter Ben Holmes’ plaintive, bittersweet, sometimes klezmer, sometimes Balkan tinged themes would blend so well with Kyle Sanna’s lingering guitar jangle, as they did in their debut duo performance in December? Who expected this era’s darkest jamband, Big Lazy, to take their sultry noir cinematic themes and crime jazz tableaux further into the dub they were exploring twenty years ago, like they did right before the new year? Who would have guessed that the best song of the show by trombonist Bryan Drye’s Love Call Trio would be exactly that, a mutedly lurid come-on?

Where else can you hear a western swing band, with an allstar lineup to match Brain Cloud’s personnel, swaying their way through a knowingly ominous take of Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s Look Down that Lonesome Road? Notwithstanding this embarrassment of riches, the best show of all here over the past few months might have been by Turkish ensemble Alhambra, featuring most of haunting singer Jenny Luna’s band Dolunay. Back in mid-December, they spun moody, serpentine themes of lost love, abandonment and desolation over Adam Good’s incisive, brooding oud and Ramy El Asser’s hynoptic, pointillistic percussion. Whether singing ancient Andalucian laments in Ladino, or similar fare in Turkish, Luna’s wounded nuance transcended any linguistic limitations.

There’s good music just about every night at Barbes, something no other venue in New York, or maybe the world, can boast.  Tomorrrow’s show, Feb 18 at Barbes is Brain Cloud at 7 followed at 9:30ish by ex-Chicha Libre keyboard sorcerer Josh Camp’s wryly psychedelic cumbia/tropicalia/dub band Locobeach. Slavic Soul Party are here the day after, Feb 19 at 9; Noriega and the Crooked Trio play most Fridays starting at 5:30. That’s just the tip of the iceberg.

The Spanish Harlem Orchestra Bring a Wild Salsa Party to Curry Hill

Remember when you couldn’t walk down the avenue anywhere in the five boroughs without hearing salsa blasting from every other car and delivery van? Back in the day, it was such a welcoming sound to come home to, especially after being outside the country. Reggaeton and cumbia may have eclipsed salsa as Latino New York’s default party music, but it isn’t just oldtimers who’re keeping it alive. The Spanish Harlem Orchestra don’t play as many gigs as they used to, so if classic 70s salsa dura is your thing, their three-night stand at the Jazz Standard this Feb 21-24 is for you. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 PM; cover is a hefty $35, but remember the club doesn’t have minimums. On the other hand, nobody’s going to blame you if you can’t resist the barbecue: keep in mind they share a kitchen with Blue Smoke upstairs.

The band’s latest album, Anniversary is streaming at youtube. It’s a mix of originals and imaginatively reinvented standards. The opening track, Esa Nena sets the stage with a 70s Fania Records blueprint: blazing brass, playful polyrhythms, energetic call-and-response and a pulsingly catchy, vamping Afro-Cuban groove.

Yo Te Prometo is a bristling bolero in bright salsa disguise. Underneath the brassy gusts and insistent drive of Dime Tu, there’s a hypnotic thicket of woodblock and bongos, the timbales coming further toward the front alongside a honking Mitch Frohman baritone sax solo. The song’s message of solidarity carries special resonance in these xenophobic times.

Goza Al Ritmo has a shadowy solo from pianist Oscar Hernández. A tantalizingly brief, punchy trumpet solo and a go-for-broke outro cap off the mighty dance anthem Echa Pa’Lante. Guaracha y Bembe is a distinctly New York update on 50s Cuban big band majesty: singer Marco Bermudez calls this the soundtrack for a crazy night, and he isn’t kidding.

Y Deja and La Media Vuelta are more romantic, looking back to the 80s and then a couple of decades further, respectively. Cancion Para Ti is the poppiest, most 80s-flavored track here, Jeremy Bosch’s flute fluttering in and out. Como Te Quise has some unexpected baroque moments from the brass – Reynado Jorge and Doug Beavers on trombones, Hector Colon and Maneco Ruiz on trumpets.

Tres Palabras – another spiced-up bolero – has a deliciously lush, nocturnal atmosphere: it comes across as a more lavishly orchestrated counterpart to Bio Ritmo. Likewise, Somos Uno has a pouncing intensity along with a bubbling, triumphant trumpet cameo from Randy Brecker, The album’s final track is Soy El Tambor, a mighty, tumbling coda to over an hour’s worth of music. 

First and foremost, this is a party in a box. Lyrically, the songs celebrate pretty women, getting out on the floor and rhythmic sabrosura, with more serious references to the music’s cultural and historical value. At this point in history, salsa is a legacy genre like Chicago blues, roots reggae and bluegrass; there aren’t as many people taking it to new places anymore and this is one group who still are.

Fearless Pro-Immigrant Advocacy and Catchy Tunes from Ani Cordero at Lincoln Center

“If you feel fed up with the current political situation, you can get out the streets…or you can sing along,” Ani Cordero teased the crowd at Lincoln Center last week.

““I’ve been to a lot of protests in the last three years,” the singer and multi-instrumentalist mused, her back to the Puerto Rican flag at the side of the stage. “How many of you have been to a Black Lives Matter protest?” she asked.

There was a small show of hands.

“We have to be there for each other across issues. There’s a lot of work to be done. So I’ll see you in the streets!” she grinned. “If you want to start some activism, see me after.”

When Cordero isn’t reinventing classic protest songs and freedom fighter anthems from every culture south of the border and throughout the Caribbean, she’s writing slashing, catchy janglerock tunes in both Spanish and English. Backed by a similarly eclectic, talented trio, this show was a mix of classics and politically-fueled new material from Cordero’s forthcoming album Machete. “We have some machetes over there,” she enthused, motioning to the far wall. “Don’t worry, they’re made of wood.”

Playing acoustic guitar, she opened with Caminando, a song “About immigrants and how we should support them,” she said succinctly before launching into the catchy, bouncy anthem, backed by accordion, punchy bass and drums. They wound it up with a soaring accordion solo – then the accordionist switched to bass, and the bassist picked up a gorgeous, vintage Danelectro, and they kicked off an even more emphatic, catchy love song, Pienso en Mi.

Cordero put down her acoustic gutar and picked up her maracas for a rocking take of Ay Choferito, a big Pueto Rican plena hit from the 30s. The drummer got the conga patch on his syndrum going as the guitar fired of a new wave funk line to jumpstart Sacalo, a fiery number from Cordero’s Querido Mundo album that works as a broadside against violence on many levels.

Introducing a starkly pulsing, surf-tinged take of El Pueblo Esta Harto (which translates as “The People Have Had It Up to Here), Cordero explained that “I love pretty much everyone, but there’s some people…you’ve got to get them out of here quick. There’s a guy who has a building over here…”  – she pointed in the direction of the Trump Tower and let the crowd figure out the rest.

They went back to accordion rock for a gritty take of the ranchera-rock opening track from the album, Corrupcion: “The corruption in Puerto Rico is kind of legendary now, but the US is really rising in the ranks,” Cordero noted.

She left the politics behind for a coy plena-rock number about meeting somebody who might have been a viable option, say, fifteen years ago but has  since timed out. The rest of the set included  loping border rock, an insistent new wave-flavored number with a coy bread-and-butter metaphor for politicians on the take. They closed the set with another metaphorically-charged new one, Mi Machete, the guitarist firing off some terse, jagged funk lines, Cordero energizing the crowd with her guiro over a repetitive dancefloor thump.

As optimistic as Cordero’s performance was, it was sad to see Lincoln Center’s Meera Dugal making her exit official with this show. After many months of being one of the very few programmers in town creating genuinely visionary, cross-pollinated performances across cultures and artistic disciplines, she’s earned three weeks in Mozambique (that’s where she’s headed). Happily, the Lincoln Center atrium space remains in good hands as far as booking is concerned: it earned the annual award for Best Manhattan Venue when Dugal was working here and is just as strong a contender for that designation now.

The concerts here – on Broadway just north of 62nd Street – run the gamut from sounds from all over the globe, to jazz, rock, and classical. This week’s free show is tonight, Feb 7 at  7:30 PM with the Navarra String Quartet playing Pēteris Vasks’ hauntingly dynamic String Quartet No. 4 and Ravel’s String Quartet in F Major. Admission is free; be aware that the mostly-monthly classical shows tend to be wildly popular with a neighborhood crowd, so show up early if you want a seat.

Poignancy and Exhilaration with Claudia Acuña at Birdland

There was a point last night during her first set of a four-night stand at Birdland where singer Claudia Acuña started pogoing across the stage. She got as far as guitarist Juancho Herrera’s pedalboard before she ran out of room and had to chill out a little. If you’d been on that stage with that band and that setlist, you would have been just as ecstatic – but you wouldn’t have sung as rivetingly as she did.

Because the majority of this particular setlist was hers. She opened with a punchy take of Hey, a no-nonsense empowerment anthem for women everywhere and closed with a shamanic, enveloping take of her mentor Abbey Lincoln’s Holy Earth. In between, she mixed a couple of acerbic Lincoln tunes and a knowingly angst-fueled take of Jimmy Van Heusen’s But Beautiful in with a gorgeously lyrical mix of songs from her new album Turning Pages.

Acuña gets all sorts of props for her often shatteringly direct alto voice, but here the crowd was just as blown away by her songwriting and the quality of the band. Pianist Pablo Vergara spun intricate, plaintive neoromantic filigrees, with a couple of starry solos as openers. Behind the kit, Yayo Serka played what seemed to be both sides of a conspiratorial talking drum interlude to start one number, underscored much of the material with a subtle clave and went way back to the banks of the Nile to foreshadow the end of the set.

Starting on Fender and finishing on upright, bassist Carlos Henderson’s minutely nuanced touch matched the bandleader’s subtlety, notably with his allusions to the steady propulsion of Bob Marley’s Exodus throughout an understatedly dancing take of Futuro, one of the new record’s standout tracks. Acuña explained that she’d written it to her yet-unborn son and then sang with hushed joy about how much she was looking forward to seeing him “Dancing through the constellations, and through the onion and garlic patch. That translation from the Spanish is less poetic  than the actual lyric.

The high point of the new album, and arguably the show as well, was the poignant, brooding anthem Aguita de Corazon. Lowlit by Herrera’s spare accents and Vergara’s rippling angst, the wounded payoff packed a wallop whenever the chorus came around. “I’m from Chile,” Acuña explained. “We have a tea for everything. You have a broken heart? We have a tea for that too.” It was strong and potent medicine in this group’s hands, guest Gregoire Maret’s harmonica reaching an unexpectedly wrenching coda after he’d taken his time, going deeper into the blues as the narrative unfolded.

His animated exchanges with Acuña’s scatting on the next number were more lighthearted, and a lot of fun. But ultimately, depth and emotional impact is what she’s all about, and she delivered all of that, whether the wistful hope of Tres Deseos – a wish song times three, basically – and Lincoln’s The World Is Falling Down, which she and the group built matter-of-factly and aptly, with a bittersweet knowingness that was closer to Rachelle Garniez than the woman who wrote it, a deeply personal political artifact from the Civil Rights era whose relevance hasn’t dimmed.

The album release stand continues tonight, Feb 7 through 9 with sets at 7 and 10 PM; you can get in for $20.

Claudia Acuña’s Rich, Lyrical New Album Turns Out to be Worth a Decade-Long Wait

Claudia Acuña is revered in the New York jazz scene as one of the most unselfconsciously soulful and mutable singers around. She bridges the gap between North American jazz and South American balladry better than just about anyone, equally skilled in both English and Spanish. But she’s also a hell of a songwriter. Her new album Turning Pages – which hasn’t hit her music page yet – features seven originals along with a standard and another by her mentor, Abbey Lincoln. It’s Acuña’s first album as a bandleader in ten years, and it was worth the wait. She’s playing a four-night stand at Birdland to celebrate this Feb 6-9, with sets at 7 and 10; you can get in for as little as $20.

Lowlit by Pablo Vergara’s broodingly gleaming piano, Yayo Serka’s elegant drumming and Carlos Henderson’s terse bass, the album’s opening track, Aguita de Corazon is a masterpiece. Acuña’s voice is cool and nuanced yet plaintive, working the increasingly haunting twists of the lyrics with a subtle wallop. On harmonica, guest Gregoire Maret plays the solo of his life, a comet trail of angst to mirror the vocals.

Then Acuña flips the script with Hey, an insistent empowerment ballad that mashes up 70s clave soul with trippy, stainless-countertopped 90s acid jazz, guitarist Juancho Herrera adding an incisive, funky edge. Her luxuriantly bittersweet remake of Jimmy Van Heusen’s But Beautiful is spacious yet propulsive, driven by Serka’s syncopated, clickety-clack snare work. Henderson’s sinuous soloing and Herrera’s resonant jangle.

Acuña brings back the darkly pensive atmosphere in Tres Deseos (Three Wishes), awash in Serka’s waves of cymbals and malletwork and Vergara’s translucent, neoromantic phrasing. The moon imagery – a persistent trope here – in the next track, Futuro is more carefree, lit up by Herrera’s incisive flares over a pulsing quasi-reggae groove. His Arabic-tinged solo is just short of savage, and the album’s instrumental high point.

Lincoln’s Bird Alone has all kinds of neat, unexpected touches: Vergara’s coy chirps, Herrera’s spare, plaintive but powerfully present chords and a world-weary vocal that echoes both the writer and Sarah Vaughan. Silencio is anything but quiet, Herrera’s gritty flamenco-inflected lines driving the song to a harrowing peak with Acuña’s vocalese paired against Vergara’s ominously glittering rivulets.

Home, a duet with Herrera, is a gospel tune with some unexpected, sunny slide guitar. Those gospel echoes remain in thee album’s closing cut, Tu Sonrisa (Your Smile), its Mexican ranchera-inflected sway the closest thing to carefree here. It’s early in the year, but this is the best album of 2019 so far.