Edward Simon, Venezuelan Suite (Sunnyside Records)
Danilo Pérez, Panama 500 (Mack Avenue Records)
Two top-drawer Latin-American pianists, Venezuelan Edward Simon and Panamanian Danilo Pérez, take different approaches to celebrating their respective heritages on their recent
releases. Simon seamlessly integrates Venezuela’s folkloric traditions with those of jazz. Pérez works in a more painterly manner, adding touches of Panamanian color to his jazz-based
Simon’s Venezuela Suite, daring in its conception and brilliant in its realization, delivers a deeply satisfying and coherent experience, and it is getting a lot of play around here. Rather than adapt Venezuelan music to the jazz idiom as he has done in the past (and as he does here on the final track, “El Diablo Suelto”), Simon has composed four compelling new pieces, each based on a particular genre of Venezuelan music and incorporating rhythmic and melodic elements
characteristic of the genre. Simon’s compositions have a lithe muscularity well suited to the dancing rhythms, and the music—up-tempo or down—moves irresistibly forward.
The swirling head of the summery opener, “Barinas,” which is based on the joropo, Venezuela’s national music and dance, pulls the listener in with its long, long line and a flute drunk with happiness. That flute heralds a distinctive element of this recording: the perfect blending of jazz and Venezuelan
folkloric instrumentation. It’s a masterful stroke and an
astonishing artistic accomplishment: this collection of
instruments sounds as if it is the product of a single, long
tradition rather than an ad hoc collective summoned by the composer’s imagination. Simon has employed virtuosic
musicians who can navigate effortlessly both the folkloric and jazz streams: Adam Cruz (drums), Robert Koch (bass), Marco Granados (flutes), Mark Turner (tenor sax), John Ellis (bass clarinet), Jorge Glem (cuatro), Luis Quintero (percussion), Leonardo Granados (maracas), and Edmar Castañeda (harp).
Also included are “Caracas,” a syncopated merengue in 5/8 time, which features a suave Ellis solo; “Mérida,” a dreamy Venezuelan waltz that showcases Simon’s beautiful touch and lyricism; and “Maracaibo,” a gaita that Turner burns his way through. Turner also goes clear of gravity on “El Diablo.” Jorge Glem’s cuatro deserves special mention. His solos on “Barinas” and “El Diablo” dazzlingly realize the percussive, rhythmic, and harmonic capabilities of the four-stringed
It may be too early to start naming the Latin jazz album of the year, but Simon’s Venezuelan Suite must get serious consideration.
On Panama 500, Pérez celebrates the “rediscovery” of the Pacific Ocean by Vasco Núñez de
Balboa and the subsequent 500 years of his native Panama’s history, incorporating indigenous, pan-American, and European elements to paint a multicultural portrait.
Pérez deploys two groups on the album: One features bassist John Patitucci and drummer Brian Blade, his colleagues in Wayne Shorter’s quartet. The other comprises his trio mates bassist Ben Street and drummer Adam Cruz. Additional contributions are provided by violinist Alex
Hargreaves; cellist Sachi Patitucci; percussionists Rogério Boccato, Roman Díaz, Milagros Blades, and Ricuarte Villareal; and indigenous Guna musicians José Angel Colman (vocals), Eulogio Olaideginia Benítez and José Antonio Hayans (percussion, bird imitations), and Marden Paniza (director of the Guna musicians and author of the Guna narrations).
On the opening track “Rediscovery of the South Sea,” Pérez attempts to tap into a collective memory with a overture that has perhaps too much the feel of a film score. Various motifs somewhat self-consciously representing the Spanish explorers, the indigenous people, and a new connection to the East create a sort of musical diorama of the Europeans’ transit across the isthmus.
The title track more successfully celebrates the country’s
quincentennial, with Hargreave’s violin taking on a flutelike
pliancy over a percussive piano. “Reflections of the South Sea” features lovely interplay between piano and cello, as well as an inspired cricketlike percussive contribution from Boccato.
The three-part “Canal Suite” provides several of the album’s highlights, with a light and euphoric solo piano on its “Land of Hope,” a stunning percussive display from Blades on its
“Premonition in Rhythm,” and a hot dance in its well-grounded “Melting Pot (Chocolito),” with Hargreave’s violin leading the way.
The Pérez/Patitucci/Blade trio delivers another highlight with “The Expedition,” a satisfyingly abstract excursion that invokes the ethereal presence of Wayne Shorter.
There are many splendid moments on the album, but the overall experience is a bit choppy, moving from program music to abstract compositions to dense rhythmic expeditions that have the feel of complex math computations done in your head (“Gratitude”). The generous spirit of Pérez is everywhere evident, but the sense that “We are creating ‘Important Music’ ” occasionally intrudes on the proceedings, with the importance sometimes getting in the way of the music.
© 2014 Mel Minter. All rights reserved.