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Tag: Manuel Valera Piano

Bright, Colorful East African-Inspired Jazz Themes on Saxophonist Berta Moreno’s New Album

The main inspiration for Berta Moreno‘s latest album Tumaini – streaming at Bandcamp – is the trip the alto saxophonist made to Kenya, where she fell in love with the region’s many indigenous sounds. The album title is Swahili for “hope,” which resounds throughout this upbeat, optimistic mix of original jazz songs equally infused with soukous, soul and latin influences. We could all use something upbeat and optimistic these days, right?

Singer Alana Sinkëy’s warmly inviting soprano fuels the optimistically clustering, latin-tinged opening number, Karibu, Moreno’s carefree solo soaring over the scrambling groove of bassist Maksim Perepelica, drummer Raphaël Pannier and percussionist Franco Pinna. Pianist Manuel Valera’s brightly rhythmic attack brings the sunshine in, full force. They take the song out with a cheery soca-inflected romp.

Sinkëy multitracks herself into a one-woman choir, singing in her native vernacular in the second track, Afrika. After those balmy, atmospherics, the band pounce into a brisk, bounding groove that could be soukous, or Veracruz folk.

“Stolen sunlight, golden dust around your feet,” Sinkëy muses as The Beauty of the Slum gets underway, an understated trip-hop beat and Valera’s blend of piano and organ anchoring a catchy neosoul tune reflecting how there’s so much more to Africa than destitution and bloodshed.

Sinkëy’s lively vocalese interchanges with Moreno’s terse, blues-tinged lines throughout the next cut, simply titled Dance, Valera’s chords punching through a thicket of beats. Mandhari, a diptych, begins as a slowly undulating but stately soul-jazz ballad, a tribute to a “sacred place,” as Sinkëy puts it. The conclusion is a trickily rhythmic dance, Moreno’s wryly stairstepping solo handing off to Valera’s precisely circling phrases.

Valera loops a brooding minor phrase, mingling with Pinna’s shakers as the album’s title track gets underway, vocal and sax harmonies and then a tersely acerbic Moreno solo following a subtly brightening trajectory. Meanwhile, Valera channels his native Cuba, spirals and dips, and chases the clouds away.

Christine, a funky soul stroll, is a portrait of an inspiring, indomitable little girl, with a bitingly modal Moreno solo midway through. She winds up the record with Kutembea, a catchy, understatedly enigmatic, circling anthem, the most distinctly Kenyan-flavored track here. Beyond Moreno’s eclectic tunesmithing, this album is a welcome introduction to Sinkëy, a versatile and potently expressive singer that the world needs to hear more from.

Angela’s Ring: A Witheringly Funny, Unexpectedly Prophetic Satire of EU Political Skulduggery

One of the most original and savagely insightful new albums to come out since the fateful days of March, 2020 is Angela’s Ring, a large-ensemble jazz opera written by bassist Kabir Sehgal and pianist Marie Incontrera, streaming at Spotify. Premiered before the lockdown, it’s a meticulously researched, venomously satirical look at the inner workings of the European Union, focusing on the admission of Greece and the nation’s precipitous decline afterward. As context for the lockdowners’ almost complete takedown of democracy around the world, it’s eye-opening to the extreme.

It’s more a story of political corruption gone haywire than any kind of examination of the sinister International Monetary Fund scheme to cripple the Greek economy with debt and devastate its citizenry. And it’s ridiculously funny. EU heads of state come across as decadent fratboys and sorority girls who never grew up and live in a bubble. If there’s anything that’s missing here – Sehgal has obviously done his homework – it’s the point of view of the average European. For instance, we only get a single number about the Greeks who’ve lost their property, their jobs and in some cases, their lives, to satisfy speculator greed.

The Leveraged Jazz Orchestra spoof Beethoven right off the bat in the suspiciously blithe overture, launching a Western European alternative to nationalist strife that left “a hundred million dead” over the centuries, as German dictator Angela Merkel (Lucy Schaufer) puts it. She is, after all, prone to exaggeration. And then she seduces the wary but bibulous George Papandreou (David Gordon) on a waterbed over a sultry, altered tango groove. Meanwhile, he frets how long it’s going to take the rest of the EU to find out that he’s cooked the books.

It takes IMF honcho Christine Lagarde (a hair-raising Marnie Breckinridge) to rescue him…but this deus ex machina comes with a hefty pricetag. A shady, crude Silvio Berlusconi (Brandon Snook) tells him not to worry, that Italy is in over its head even deeper, so…party time! With a monumental Napoleon complex, France’s subservient Nicolas Sarkozy (Erik Bagger) gets skewered just as deliciously. “Democracy isn’t your natural state,” he tells Merkel at a pivotal moment.

A hedge fund manager suggests a joust between Merkel and Papandreou, with Lagarde as referee. Who wins? No spoilers.

The music is inventive and imaginative, a mashup of styles from across the Continent, from folk to classical to jazz. Who would have ever imagined a celebratory Greek ballad played on Edmar Castaneda’s harp? That’s one of the more cynical interludes here. There’s also a slinky, smoky baritone sax break after Greece’s debt gets downgraded to junk by traders hell-bent on shorting it. Tenor sax player Grace Kelly adds suspicious exuberance; trombonist Papo Vazquez takes a moody break in a salsa-jazz number where Merkel’s treachery finally comes out into the open. Clarinetist Oran Etkin’s agitatedly sailing solo in an even darker latin-tinged number is one of the record’s high points, as is pianist Aaron Diehl’s similar interlude a couple of tracks later.

Ultimately, this is a cautionary tale. If you think this is outrageous and revealing – and it is – just wait til the collapse of the lockdown, the Nuremberg trials afterward, and the likely dissolution of the EU. Maybe Sehgal can write a sequel.

Dafnis Prieto Brings His Lush, Gorgeous Latin Big Band Sounds to the Jazz Standard Next Month

Over the course of his career, drummer Dafnis Prieto has immersed himself in an enormous number of influences. So it’s no surprise that the new album by his explosive Big Band, Back to the Sunset – streaming at Spotify – is a salute to every latin jazz artist he’s drawn inspiration from, sometimes three composers in a single song! That mammoth ambition pays mighty dividends throughout the album’s nine epic tracks. Prieto’s compositions are very democratic, with tons of animated call-and-response and counterpoint, and everybody in the band gets time in the spotlight. This seventeen-piece crew are playing a short stand at the Jazz Standard June 6-10, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM; cover is $30.

Trumpeter Brian Lynch takes centerstage on and off, with and without a mute, in the blazing opening number, Una Vez Más. Pianist Manuel Valera tumbles and then delivers a contrastingly elegant solo; the rest of the trumpet line (Mike Rodríguez, Nathan Eklund, Alex Sipiagin and Josh Deutsch) build a conflagration over a slinky Afro-Cuban groove; the band storm up to a catchy four-chord riff and a blast of a coda. Prieto dedicates all this to Lynch, along with Tito Puente and Eddie Palmieri.

Is The Sooner the Better a mashup of bossa nova and Fort Apache flavor, since it’s a shout-out to Jerry Gonzalez and Egberto GIsmonti? With its rising exchanges throughout the band and relentlessly suspenseful pulse, it’s closer to the Brazilian composer’s most broodingly cinematic work. Baritone saxophonist Chris Cheek gets a tantalizingly brief, gruff solo, tenor saxophonist Peter Apfelbaum keeps it dark but gets more expansive, then piano and brass carry it away,

Cheek takes a wryly jovial solo to open Out of the Bone, whidh begins as a stunning, slashing mashup of Ethiopiques and Afro-Cuban styles. Massed brass carries the tune into more symphonic territory, then a droll, chattering interlude, and finally a round of trombones: Tim Albright, Alan Ferber, Jacob Garchik and Jeff Nelson.

Interestingly, the album’s gorgeously lingering, lavish title track is dedicated to Andrew Hill and Henry Threadgill, who takes a wryly spacious, peek-a-boo cameo on alto sax. The album’s longest number, Danzonish Potpourri, shifts suddenly from bluesy gravitas, to lush sweep, hushed piano-based glimmer and then a towering bolero spiced with shivery horn accents. How do they end this beast of a tune? With a coy Apfelbaum melodica solo.

Guest altoist Steve Coleman bubbles brightly, then hands off to trumpeter Nathan Eklund in Song for Chico, a cheery Veracruz-flavored number, much of which sounds like a long, joyous outro. Individual voices leap out from every corner of the sonic picture in the triumphantly shuffling Prelude Para Rosa, which like so many other tracks here morphs unexpectedly, in this case to a moody cha-cha with a spiraling Román Filiú alto sax solo.

The no-nonsense, bustling Two For One has similarly vast scattershot voicings, a smoky Apfelbaum solo followed by Valera’s scrambling attack and then a wry wind-down from Prieto and multi-percussionist Roberto Quintero. The album’s final number is the aptly titled The Triumphant Journey, dedicated to Dizzy Gillespie and Chano Pozo, with fiery cascades of Ethiopian riffage and a sudden shift to trumpet-fueled clave.

What a blast this album must have been to make, for a lineup that also includes trumpeters Mike Rodríguez, Alex Sipiagin and Josh Deutsch; alto saxophonist Michael Thomas and bassist Ricky Rodríguez.