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Oscar Hernández “No Words Needed ”

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    Posted: 17 Jun 2024 at 11:25am

Latin Jazz Album Reviews: Oscar Hernández, Argentina Durán, and Jesus Molina — All in Superb Form

By Brooks Geiken

A trio of Latin-themed jazz albums that range from the best of the year to an uneven debut effort.

For his fourth Alma Libre disc, Oscar Hernández has gone back in time and assembled what he calls The New York Band. This iteration of the band has its origin in the ’90s when Seis Del Solar released the album Alternate Roots. Members of the latter group — Robby Ameen drums, Bobby Franceschini sax, John Benitez bass, and Oscar Hernández piano — are together once again, now rechristened as Alma Libre. The conga and percussion chair is filled by Grammy award-winner Colombian Samuel Torres. After a thirty year hiatus the musicians have reunited to play a fresh set of ten tunes in an album called No Words Needed.

The title tune, “No Words Needed,” is a great beginning to a swinging album. Benitez takes the first solo on electric bass, followed by Franceschini who soars above the beat on tenor, sailing off into wailing free jazz at the end of his solo. The statement Hernández’s piano makes during the song’s montuno section displays his brilliant command of dynamics. “Wayne’s Wonder” is dedicated to the late Wayne Shorter: it is an appropriately sophisticated tribute to the legendary composer/musician. This time Franceschini takes up the soprano sax; Torres contributes some poignant moments on congas. Variety is the name of the game on No Words Needed. In “La Princesa” the band switches gears to carefully caress the light sounds of a danzón. Invited guests, Alex Norris on flugelhorn and Andrea Brachfeld on flute, make the melody shine. Especially notable is the expert flute playing of Brachfeld.

The bolero “Te Deseo Amor” (I Wish You Love) features Hernández and Franceschini in a particularly mellow mood — their solos drift along with the dreamy melody. Torres brings an innovative approach to the genre — his congas contribute a distinctive rhythmic pattern.

Hernández saved the best for last –“Jazz Pa’l Mambo” is an instant Latin Jazz classic. The track has it all: a danceable beat (courtesy of Torres), stunning solos, Ameen on drums, Brachfeld on flute, Franceschini on tenor and, of course, Hernández on piano. The song kicks up its heels to the highest heights. Best of all, No Words Needed improves with each listen. There are no weak tunes: “The Brave One,” “Morning Sun,” “Embrace The Moment,” “Rise Above,” and “Hip-notized” are consistently strong. Over the years, Hernández has continually improved his compositional skills. The exhilarating fruit of his labors is this sumptuous recording. Without a doubt, No Words Needed is the Latin Jazz album of the year!!

Pianist Argentina Durán is a musician many will want to remember after listening to Rapsodia Mexicana. The 27 year-old from Xalapa in the Veracruz area of México has assembled an inviting compendium of rhapsodies by composers from her native state. Recorded in the acoustically excellent Sala Silvestre Revueltas in Mexico City, the album serves as a showcase for Durán’s marvelous piano playing. She heard versions of mid-century “Rapsodia Mexicana” as a child, and the disc is her attempt to recreate the rapturous sounds of a bygone era.

For her first track, Durán chose “Cuatro Danzas Mexicanas,” composed by Manuel M. Ponce (circa 1941). During the first section (Vivo – Meno mosso, espressivo) she almost glides into dissonance but pulls back at the last second. The fourth part (Vivo – Poco meno) rises and falls, the roller-coaster coming to an auspicious stop. Continuing with “Amar…..Nocturno” (composed by Felipe Villanueva) Durán takes off on some rising chords, only to settle back down via a slow resolve, notes left gently hanging in the air at the end. Shifting gears, Durán makes adroit use of space in her vision of “Padre” (composed by Alejandro Corona). A wise choice: the beauty of the tune is accentuated by the silence she nestles between the gorgeous notes. There are three parts to “Danzas Nocturnas” (composed by Luis G. Jordá): each one stands on its own as a short and elegant piece. Durán plays these melancholic melodies with prayerful reverence. The rhythm has an almost tango-like feeling, and she adroitly leans into the tune’s gentle swelling and receding.

Clocking in at two minutes and eleven seconds, “Baila Tristeza” packs a lot of emotion into a very short time. Durán’s capable hands bring lovely dramatic flair to Mario Ruis Armengol’s melodic composition.

For me, the album’s crowning achievement is Durán’s version of “Rapsodia Mexicana.” Her memories of childhood energize this highly theatrical performance — you can see her seated at the piano, tearing with delight into a variety of popular songs, including “La Cucaracha.” It is a fitting capstone to a marvelous trip down memory lane — the sounds of yesteryear resurrected impeccably.

Colombian pianist Jesus Molina is 27 years old, and his debut album suggests that a bright future lies ahead of him. Selah (Praise or To lift Up) reflects a maturity and focus of mind that’s rare in performances of contemporary instrumental music. That said, there is a downside: Molina has a tendency to misuse the synthesizer — it appears awkwardly on four out of ten tracks on the recording. Still, anytime Molina plays the acoustic piano the right notes are under his fingers.

Let’s accentuate the positive by pointing out that the compositions here are well thought out and that Molina’s playing is captivating. “Dear Fall” features some fine piano and a great turn by Hubert Laws on flute and piccolo. Guy Bernfeld’s electric bass burbles along nicely — it is the magnetic undercurrent to this pleasant tune. One standout cut, “Soul Journey,” offers some unusual twists and turns, aided in part by the wordless vocal of Noel Schajris. Drawing on his classical piano background, Molina applies a vigorous staccato attack — his fingers fly swiftly  over the keyboard. Guest violinist Lucia Micarelli solos with great depth on the classically oriented pieces “Melody” and “Blue New Year.” Molina wisely chose to use the string synthesizer on both tunes, and they are duly enhanced.

Molina demonstrates his versatility by picking up the soprano sax on “Quintuplets.” The acoustic piano generates just the right rhythmic groove. But beware the drummer!! Cain Daniel is one of those smash-and-crash percussionists who squat on the beat, constantly. There’s no nuance whatsoever from him — case in point, “Quintuplets.”

“Selah,” “Pichi,” “Kado Shin,” and “Caf” suffer from far too much superficial noodling on the synthesizer. The mentality of “Wow check out what I can do on this electronic gadget” was bad enough in the ’70s. It must never be brought back. The guitar-like synth sounds that infest “Kado Shin” and “Caf” are outré sugary confections.

The last track, “Out Of A Dream,” ends the album on a soothing note. Molina employs the synth in just the right spots and his acoustic piano caresses the lovely melody.

Throughout Selah, Molina proves he can write stimulating music and, when he sticks to the acoustic piano, is a formidable instrumentalist as well as a competent soprano saxophonist. His solos are crisp and logical, sometimes delivered at quicksilver pace. Despite the album’s drawbacks, Molina is a musician who in the years to come may serve up some surprising delights for piano aficionados.

from https://artsfuse.org

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