December 2010


On a recent October evening, we gather to huddle around the musical fire being stoked by the great conga player Poncho Sanchez and his fiery band, as they heat up the intimate confines of Scullers Jazz Club located here in Cambridge, MA. Scullers offers a great chance to see acts like this one up close and personal. Tonight, Poncho Sanchez takes his seat beside his turquoise congas and ignites the proceedings by pounding his fists on his drums to get the band in rhythmic stride. With his lean frame, Sanchez towers over his congas with his white beard and cap askew, caressing the drum surfaces with his long fingers, each one capped at their tip with white tape (like white dappled cat paws ready to pounce). Sanchez uses every angle of his fingers and hands to create a maelstrom of colors from his congas. He uses the side of his palm to slice the drum surface and at other times, dices the surfaces with rapid finger movements. At one point in the evening, he plays a duet with fellow percussionist Joey De Leon (playing furiously on a set of bongos). Their duet commences with Sanchez placing a lone finger on his congas. The ensuing succession of single notes reverberates deeply into the room, igniting the slow brewing Bolero that follows (composed from someplace deep in the Cuban countryside). At another point, timbales player George Ortiz busts out, hitting the timbales’ center, edges and rims with such intensity that sparks fly like grease in a pan, shockingly loud and intense. 

The band heats up on a number of great tunes taken from their latest gem of a recording,Psychedelic Blues [Concord/Picante Records 3152602]. The title cut is a furious joyride propelled by Sanchez’s gearbox, Ortiz’s blazing timbale soloing and trombonist Torres’ warm, rounded bodywork. “Willie Bobo Medley” is another joyride with an intense swinging beat, motored by Sanchez’s vocals, pianist David Torres’ mambo maneuvers and guitarist Andrew Synowiec’s jazzy infusions into the carousing Latin mix. The band’s show at Scullers concluded with Herbie Hancock’s “Cantaloupe Island,” (which also appears on Psychedelic Blues). This swinging encore found trumpeter Ron Blake hurling spitfire attacks against Sanchez and De Leon’s combustible drumming. After this encore, the audience would simply not let the band off the stage; demanding more Cuban heat to keep them warm for the winter months to come. 

Crossing town to another wonderful jazz venue, the Regattabar, (located at the Charles Hotel in Cambridge, MA.), we are just in time to witness musical wonderment performed by violinist Regina Carter and her fabulous band. Carter has just released a gem of a recording entitled Reverse Thread [E1 Music]. Her eclectic group combines sounds and flavors from around the world. These include the delicate sounds embodied in Yacouba Sissoko’s Kora; Eastern European flavors from Will Holshouser’s accordion; jazz and blues spice provided by bassist, Chris Lightcap; shimmering, creative percussion from (Stereo Times’ own) Alvester Garnett; and contrasting light and colors from the prism provided by jazz guitarist Adam Rogers. In their performance at the Regattabar, Carter sways and dances as she builds beautiful solos from tidbits of Blues, snatches of Blue-Grass and morsels of Classical; all gathered into the basket of pulsating traditional African folk melodies. On the pensive “N’Teri”, all is silence and peace while Sissoko gently plucks his Kora, sounding like a jangled bag of precious jewels. Lightcap’s acoustic bass plunges into this sparkling drama, with Carter joining in with a beautiful, languid solo on her violin. Holshouser adds his unique high accordion sounds to the mixture, breezing through and singing in high tender tones of better days. Reverse Thread is filled with such moments of drama, sheer tenderness and the interconnectedness of these diverse sounds and heritages. Joe Ferla has achieved a beautiful recording here, capturing the rich timbres, textures and contrasting colors of this wondrous stew, concocted by these masterful artists at play. During their performance at the Regattabar, you could watch members of the audience leaning in to try and catch every delicate musical strand unfurling in this wondrous creation. 

The musical traditions of Africa also permeate the rich, sinuous music of Haiti, and to explore this terrain we have a wonderful musical guide in percussionist extraordinaire,Markus Schwartz, and the trio “Lakou Brooklyn”, on their recent release entitled Equinox [Soundkeeper Recordings]. It is always fun to keep an ear out for Soundkeeper Recording’s Barry Diament, whose recording techniques always create a sound that is vibrant and fresh; natural in image dimensionality and rich in ambient details. Here, Schwartz’s Haitian drums are big and voluptuous next to the long, carmel-colored bowing of Paul Beaudry’s acoustic bass and the clarion call of Jean Caze’s conch shell. On the meditative “Seremoni Tiga,” hand held percussion and chimes sway in a gentle breeze, each shake clear and distinct. “Cecia” flows on a traditional Haitian melody grafted to a jazz concept. Caze’s trumpet pushes and pulls against the tide of Monvelyno Alexis’ electric guitar as the two connect and disconnect on a foundation provided by Schwartz’s huge drums and crisp wooden sticks that crackle all around the soundstage. Coltrane’s “Equinox” is another wonderful creation where Haitian rhythm and soul intersect with Afro Beat and American Jazz; the elements curling around each other into a finely wrought dance of electric guitar, horn and deep drum colors.

Elemental music forged from drum beats and traditional chanting also infuses the music of the northernmost town on Earth, located in Hammerfest, Norway, whose people’s ancient language and music are brilliantly captured in 5.1 surround sound by multi-instrumentalist and recording engineer Andreas Fliflet, on his recent Blu-ray release entitled “Mira” [Jienat]. Here is a world of colossal drum swaths, beautiful soaring melodies and the cacophony of everyday sounds and textures collected from Flflet’s own inspired scrapbook detailing this rich, remote musical heritage. 


From the nearby Netherlands and Sweden, we also have the gift of recent recording gems from two different pianists, each embracing its own musical vision and vivacious story-telling. First, there is the elemental vision of pianist Mathias Landaeus and his Trio on their superb recording, Opening[MA Recordings MO81A]. Landaeus is a pianist of deep emotional intensity working with fluid, dense colors and twisted phrasing, all leading into a forest of delight. “Strip Comic” ignites with furious stick and snare work from Fait, leading into a cascade of stops and starts from Landaeus and Danielsson, each trying to compete for the punch line in this marvelous comic dialogue. “Family Tree” takes a simple children’s melody and wraps it into a loose entanglement of deep bass plunges and fleeting touches of humor from light cymbal and piano skips. The trio works their magic within the confines of the Swedish Radio Studio, whose light and airy ambience is beautifully ensnared by Todd Garfinkle’s special touch with his One Point, 5.6 MHz DSD recording. Catch them if you can! 

And, speaking of great dialogue, one must take a listen to the rich musical narratives spun by the dynamic young pianist, Amina Figarova, and her fabulous band from the Netherlands, on their recording, Sketches [Munich Records]. Figarova brings a different flavor of colors and techniques to her piano than Landaeus: spilling and twirling through uncanny note placement with angular, unpredictable rhythmic foundations. Her compositions spread out over a global reach that includes Bebop, Blues and Classical touches; even finding some rest in the shade of a New Orleans’ slow, pausing dirge (“Back in New Orleans”). Her fabulous Big Band heats up all around her, with huge statements from Marc Mommaas on tenor sax, brilliant quips from Ernie Hammes on horns and Bart Platteau’s soaring flute. On “Look at that,” the Bebop pace is furious until Figarova enters to calm the waters with her delicate, airy runs alongside Jeroen Vierdag’s pungent bass lines. Figarova carves out wonderful runs zipping in and out of unpredictable rhythmic patterns. She appeared at Newport Jazz this past summer and its best to keep an eye out for this pianist from up North, painting the globe red with the help of her talented band mates. 

I should not leave this region of the world without mentioning another gorgeous recording gem combining a journey from Moscow to Norway, in the Moscow Soloists riveting recording of Edvard Grieg’s From Holberg’s Time [Onyx 4037]. This recording is so beautifully done that your system (along with your pulse) will be quickened with every deep string bass pluck and effervescent violin soar. The Moscow soloists, along with their director, Yuri Bashmet, wear their technical mastery and emotional music-making on their sleeves, marking every step of Grieg’s melodic journey with panache. The disc also includes brilliant performances of Mozart’s Eine kleine Nachtmusik and Tchaikovsky’s Serenade For Strings, equally ravishing and thrilling for the heart and mind. 

If the Moscow Soloists “Got Rhythm”, then so do the Harmonie Ensemble/New York, directed by Steven Richman, in their joyous recording entitled Gershwin By Grofe [Harmonia Mundi 907492]. Here, the Harmonie Ensemble play original orchestrations of Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm” and other Broadway hits orchestrated by the composer, Ferde Grofe, who, (in the 1920’s), orchestrated these songs for the Paul Whiteman Orchestra. The disc ignites with “I Got Rhythm,” flourishing forth with huge orchestral colors and the beautiful, pulsating piano of Lincoln Mayorga. Mayorga spins a wonderful tale on his light, airy piano, while huge swaths of brass and woodwinds buffet him in the wind of this glorious melody. The disc also includes a dancing, whirlwind version of “Rhapsody in Blue”, introduced by Al Gallodoro’s sinuous solo on clarinet; (he the 92-year old original soloist with the Whiteman Orchestra). The piece is a fabulous cabaret of sight and sound: from the sweeping woodwind pulse to the percussive wallops to finally, the lyrical interludes of Galladoro and Mayorga’s beguiling solos. This repository of Americana is a feast for the ears, marvelously captured within the light and sweet ambiance of SUNY Purchase’s Performing Arts Center. 

A final selection for toe tapping (and another repository of Americana in all of its glory) would have to come from two artists unlikely to be heard in the same stanza: 
Harold “Duke” Dejan and Jimi Hendrix. You’ll never hear a more toe-tapping tune than “Corrina, Corrina” that opens up the superb recording of Dejan singing with his New Orleans Preservation Band mates on “Preservation Hall Hot 4 With Duke Dejan” [Preservation Hall Recordings]. This entire recording is filled with swinging hot stuff, from Dejan’s deep soulful vocals; Wendell Brunious on soaring, snarling trumpet; Don Vappie on crisp, swinging acoustic guitar; Benjamin Jaffe on pumping acoustic bass and Thaddeus Richard belting out Basin Street sparkle on his piano. The recording is superb, with stunning image dimensionality where you can feel you are walking in and around the players on the small stage, taking it all in. 

And take this all in: another musical genius ripping through ballads of lost love and “Baby be Gone” from yet another musical viewpoint: Jimi Hendrix captured raw on the latest archival release, Valley of Neptune [Experience Hendrix; Sony Music]. The title cut is a smoking, swaying anthem, with great rolling guitar chords from Hendrix’s multi-colored presentation and staccato drum attacks from Mitch Mitchell. “Bleeding Heart” is a machine gun attack of power chords moving in and out of Billy Cox’s furious bass lines while the contrasting slow, muscular “Lover Man” is a brewing storm recorded in the tight confines of the Air Studios, London. The version of “Red House” recorded here is a milestone of tight, slow blues rifts, taking its time as it winds its way through Hendrix’s ferocious obtuse angles, bends and twists of chromatic colors; the Master at play. 

We welcome any suggestions for audiophile recording gems. Please write





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