CD REVIEW: Abrazo : the Havana Sessions



Various artists - Abrazo : the Havana Sessions
(Ansonica Records AR0001. CD Review by Jane Mann)

This is the first release from new American label Ansonica. It’s a two-disc recording, covering jazz and contemporary music, with works for big band, small jazz combo, choir and chamber ensembles. It’s unusual in that the composers are mainly American and the musicians are Cuban, with one American vocalist. They are a mixture of classical and jazz performers, with members of the National Symphony Orchestra of Cuba, the Buena Vista Social Club and Irakere amongst them. The recordings were made in Havana, Cuba in late 2015, shortly after the US embargo on trade and travel between those two countries was lifted.

The first disc kicks off with Timothy Lee Miller’s Hot Miami Nights and On an Autumn Day, immaculately played by a powerful big band which manages to be both totally jazz and distinctly Cuban. The playing is tight and precise and the rhythm section drives the pieces on. Next is Dan Bowyer’s lively Bugs and Gas, also for big band. This was commissioned in honour of Don Spina, who, as the sleeve notes put it “had retired from a career spent decommissioning biological and chemical weapons, called ‘bugs and gas’ by those in the field”. It is a surprisingly catchy piece, with some great solos from the saxophones and trombone.

The rest of Disc One is taken up with two suites by Bunny Beck, arranged by Juan Manuel Cerulo for jazz septet. The playing is impressive on both the Jazz Instrumental Suite, and the Jazz Vocal Suite but I found the vocal pieces more successful, possibly because the Cuban elements were more up front, and (American) singer Will Dailey’s old-fashioned vocal delivery is so charming. The standout instrumentalist for me is the pianist Rolando Luna, an inventive and energetic performer. The producer of Abrazo, Bob Lord, writes that the music on Disc One is “New York jazz by way of the Malecón” which is a fair description.

Disc Two is a complete change. All the pieces are contemporary classical in style, with modern choral music to the fore. There is a set of Benjamin Britten influenced modern madrigals by Roger Bourland, exquisitely sung by Vocal Luna, conducted by Wilmia Verrier Quinones. Another expert choir Schola Cantorum Coralina, conducted by Alina Orraca, perform After the Fall, written in response to 9/11 with poems by Jodi Kanter set to music by Michael Murray.

In between these two, there is a fairly abstract suite Burlesque by John A Carrollo for trumpet and guitar and a trio for trumpet, trombone and French horn, Coloring with Water by Mel Mobley. My favourite on this disc is Australian Margaret Brandman’s suite Warm Winds in Havana - a set of four brief tunes, slightly reminiscent of Bjork’s The Anchor Song, written for saxophone quartet and percussion. The music is melodious and intricate, beautifully played, with Javier Zalba leading his ensemble on baritone sax, the subtle percussion tying it all together pleasingly. Both the Mobley and the Brandman pieces straddle that indefinable line between jazz and contemporary classical / new music.

This collection as a whole is so varied it is impossible to categorise. It will be interesting to see what comes next from Ansonica.

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