Agúzate Review: Eddie Palmieri Salsa Orchestra at Millennium Park Chicago

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By Don Macica, Photos by Charlie Billups –

The return of the Eddie Palmieri Salsa Orchestra to Millennium Park Monday night was a triumph by any conceivable measure. An audience of close to 10,000 people filled the Pritzker Pavilion seats and lawn on a hot summer night. The band rewarded the overflow crowd with a performance of epic proportions. Including Palmieri’s piano, there are 12 members of this orchestra, but if you closed your eyes while dancing with abandon (and trust me, there were many, many people dancing with abandon) you’d swear there were 50. The power emanating off the stage was the result of the very best Latin musicians playing at the top of their game for an adoring crowd and loving every minute of it.

Palmieri has been known by many nicknames over the last six decades or so since he formed La Perfecta, his first groundbreaking band: the Sun of Latin Music, El Maestro, El Rumbero del Piano. Or, a bit more obscurely, the Schoenberg of Salsa, a nod to the complex music of the contemporary classical composer. Over that time he has employed lo mejor de lo mejor of Latin musicians, and the current lineup stands with the best of them.

There were several standout moments from each and every person on stage. Hermán Olivera captures the spirit of original La Perfecta vocalist Ismael Quintana without resorting to imitation. Trombonists Conrad Herwig and Jimmy Bosch are band leaders and innovators in their own right. The congas/bongos/timbales Holy Trinity of Pequeño Johnny, Nicky Marrero and Camilo Molina-Gaetan kept everything on high burn the entire evening. Luques Curtis on bass anchored it all, and Nelson Gonzáles on tres was a constant reminder of the Cuban son foundation from which salsa emerged, particularly on Palmieri’s arrangement of the 1946 Arsenio Rodriguez classic Dame Un Cachito Pa’huele. All were allowed to shine repeatedly with solos during the entire 90-minute concert, and each brought 110% to every note and gesture.

Palmieri himself entered the stage first for a brief solo piano performance, then brought out the band, each of whom he introduced with warm regard before they played a single note. They kicked off with 15 delirious minutes of Pa’ la Ocha Tambó after which Palmieri, beaming with pride, remarked “This is how our music is supposed to be played.” A similarly lengthy Pa’ Huele followed, and then I lost track, because after awhile you surrender to the moment and simply become present in the joy that 12 musicians and 10,000 of their close friends can radiate. Once in awhile Palmieri would leave his piano bench to lead the crowd in clapping the clave, which I have to say (judging from the smile on Palmieri’s face) we all did flawlessly.

Words are pretty inadequate when it comes to describe music of this high caliber, so I’m going to turn it over to photographer Charlie Billups to tell the rest of the story. Thank you, Eddie. And thank you, Chicago.

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Miramar: Return of the Bolero

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By Don Macica –

I remember the first time my girlfriend played an album of boleros for me. It was classic stuff, an album that she said her parents owned. I swooned over those gorgeously melancholic tunes, deep in romance and longing. That was five years ago, and I’ve learned a bit more since then. I thought I knew all the classics—Sabor a Mí, Tres Palabaras, Dos Gardenias—but it turns out I was just scratching the surface, unwittingly confining myself mostly to boleros from Cuba and Mexico. Like cumbia, though, the bolero is a phenomenon throughout Latin America.

Miramar is a side project of sorts from the salsa band Bio Ritmo. The group will visit Chicago this weekend for a pair of concerts, and they have opened up another world to me that I knew little about. Their new album Dedication to Sylvia Rexach honors a Puerto Rican songwriter who is something of a cult figure. I know her name as the writer of two songs, including the title tune, on Miguel Zenón’s Alma Adentro: The Puerto Rican Songbook, but that was about it. So, who is Sylvia Rexach, and why did Miramar dedicate an album to her?

Miramar consists of Marlysse Simmons-Argandoña and Reinaldo Alvarez from Bio Ritmo and singer Laura Ann Singh. Alvarez is of Puerto Rican heritage while Simmons-Argandoña is from Chile, and Singh was born in Tennessee but spent years singing in Brazil. Miramar was born out of a shared passion for boleros between Alvarez and Simmons-Argandoña that Bio Ritmo didn’t quite  have room for. “We decided to start a bolero group because there were only so many boleros we could do with a salsa band,” says Marlysse.

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They were particularly struck by a 1960s-era album of Rexach songs from Duo Irizarry de Córdova. In contrast to the Mexican trios that swept much of Latin America (Los Panchos, Los Tres Aces), this Puerto Rican duo featured male and female voices in unique interaction. “It was a new expression of pain and longing,” says Rei Alvarez. “It was a concrete manifestation of everything that I love about romantic music”.  Enter Laura Ann Singh as the perfect singing partner, and Miramar’s duo sound was born.

The resulting album is quite lovely and drenched in nostalgia. Seven of the album’s ten songs are Rexach compositions, with the remainder composed by Alvarez and Simmons-Argandoña. Inspired by bolero, they nonetheless evoke other sources, from waltzes to a Middle Eastern feel. While clearly anchored in the style and the era it pays homage to, the album’s nostalgia derives from its soulfulness, not imitation. I’m still curious, though. With songs as beautiful as this, why is Sylvia Rexach a cult figure, a term that implies devotion from a select but limited audience?

“In my opinion, it’s because she was a songwriter, not a performer. She only had one recording out [a simple and unadorned album of her voice accompanied by acoustic guitarist Tuti Umpierre] and while people may know her songs, they don’t necessarily know who wrote them, because they associate the song with the performer,” says Marlysse Simmons-Argandoña, speaking to me by phone from the road. “She gave songs away, so it’s possible that there are songs that we don’t even know are hers.”

Returning to the Miramar album, I ask about the Puerto Rican duo tradition that inspired the vocals. “We didn’t initially take the duo approach. Rei and I are both big record collectors. There is a café in Santurce right around the corner from a big record store that we would go to when visiting Puerto Rico. An older generation of musicians hangs out there. They introduced us to a lot of duo music, including Duo Irizarry de Córdova. We both loved the sound, but Rei was the only singer in Miramar at the time.  We didn’t know Laura Ann. We met her and she joined Rei for a couple of songs at one of our concerts and we were like wow, that’s it.”

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Instrumentally, the album has a classic feel: piano, guitar, bongos, maracas, strings – and one distinct feature that I’m not used to hearing in tropical music, organ. That last thing, I assumed, was sort of a hipster affectation, the way some indi-rock bands use ukuleles or toy pianos. Wrong. I found some Duo Irizarry de Córdova music on YouTube, and the organ is there in all its nostalgic glory. “Those albums are full of haunting organ,” says Marlysse.

There are thirteen songs on the one, rare Sylvia Rexach album (as far as I can tell – I’ve had to patch it together from YouTube videos containing the audio of old albums), so I ask Marlysse how they arrived at the seven that were recorded by Miramar. “The Irizarry de Córdova album of her songs was our starting point, so our sound and song selection originate there. However, we have since learned a few more and will be debuting them in Chicago.”

Sylvia Rexach will probably never be as well-known as Rafael Hernandez or Pedro Flores. But with Miramar’s help, some much needed recognition will surely come her way.
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Miramar appears twice this weekend in Chicago, both shows presented by Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center

Friday, June 24 @ 3:00PM at Hermosa Park, 2240 N. Kilbourn Avenue – Free Admission (co-presented by Night Out in the Parks)
Saturday, June 25 @ 7:00PM at Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center, 4048 W. Armitage Avenue – $20 Donation goes to SRBCC’s educational and cultural programs. Tickets and info at srbcc.org

Agúzate Review: Céu, Tropix

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By Don Macica –

Céu could have taken the easy path. She has a classically intimate Brazilian voice that lures you into listening to her every syllable, one that is easily marketed to folks who crave those soft summer sambas. But that’s not what artists do, and Céu is, above all else, an artist.

The São Paulo-born singer and composer shares a restless curiosity and drive with fellow Paulistas like Curumin, Luisa Maita and Cibelle. If you compare New York City to Los Angeles, then you have some idea of the difference between São Paulo and Rio. Compelling music certainly emerges from both places. In São Paulo, though, it has a bit more edge.

Céu’s fourth studio album Tropix, like its three predecessors, is a departure from the one that came before it. Whereas her 2012 release Caravana Sereia Bloom employed an almost alternative rock-like backing band to explore Brazilian music, Tropix is built almost entirely on electronics, using an arpeggiator to sequence beats and rhythms. Despite this, it retains the warmth and intimacy of an acoustic session.

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The word ‘tropix’ is Céu’s amalgam of ‘tropical’ and ‘pixel’. She has described the pixel as the inspiration for this music: “A pixel is a small part of a big thing—defragmentation as a concept.” This idea is built into the lead off track and video, Perfume do Invisível. A synth pattern bubbles under a close up black & white shot of a rather sultry and elegant Céu singing of intoxicating, invisible perfume. Soon, though, the image flickers, splits and distorts like a digital transmission on a stormy night. After sixteen lines of verse, the beat kicks in along with funk guitar worthy of Nile Rodgers and the imagery switches to Céu disco dancing in in glittery clubwear. Funk break over, the verse returns but this time the singer is unadorned, no makeup, wearing what looks like a science fiction take on a monastic tunic. In the outro, the funk is back along with the dancing, but this time from what appears to be inside a strobe-lit cage.

Visually, it’s an avant-garde gem. Musically, it has the same adventurous spirit of Caetano Veloso’s work in the 80s and 90s, smartly balancing satiny smoothness with a grittier edge.

The remaining eleven songs on the album stay in this warm, highly listenable space. You could put this album on while cooking dinner and it would sound great. At the same time, a closer listen will reward you highly. The lyrics continue their exploration of a fragmented world, but viewed intimately, not from afar. I probably don’t have to translate Amor Pixelado for you, but I will tell you that it is as beautiful and honest a love song as I’ve ever heard.

Only a few of the songs sound ‘Brazilian’ on first listen. The ones that do, Minhas Bics and especially Sangria, are gorgeous. Still, even a propulsive anthem like Chico Buarque Song or a dance workout like Etílica/Interlúdio are clear descendants of the Brazilian Tropicália movement. When acoustic sounds (guitar, bass, drums, a string arrangement) intrude on the electronic soundscape, the effect is beguiling.

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photo: Luiz Garrido

And, of course, there’s that voice. Along with the overall strength of her songwriting, it is the constant that powers all four of her albums. Caetano Veloso once sang “Some may like a soft Brazilian singer. But I’ve given up all attempts at perfection.” Veloso, of course, has one of Brazil’s all time most marvelous voices. Céu possesses an instrument that is similarly captivating, but like Veloso, she, too, is not content to get by on charm.
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Céu is in concert at City Winery, 1200 W. Randolph St, Chicago on Friday, June 24. Tickets at citywinery.com.