A slight departure to start December: this review is in a roundabout way a 'commission' rather than anything I've had published in the magazine. It began a couple of months ago when my friend Lynne, full of enthusiasm, loaned me this CD. I'd never heard of Fonseca, but that didn't surprise me as I wouldn't say my finger is entirely 'on the pulse'.
I promised her a review, but nothing happened until a 'phonecall a few days ago in which I was given an ultimatum: a review by Sunday or forfeit approximately fifteen times your annual salary!
Recognising the danger I quickly got to work, and here's the result. A nice CD which compares well to similar things I've heard lately by the likes of Edward Simon and Andile Yenana, and music I was happy to 'discover'...
ENJA RECORDS (3328)
Misa Popular; Tierra En Mano; Clandestino; Llego Cachaito; Asi Baila Mi Madre; Congo Arabe; Zamazu; Suspiro; Ishmael; El Niejo; Mil Congoja; Triste Alegria; Zamazamazu; Dime Que No.
Roberto Fonseca (piano); Mercedes Cortes Alfaro (vocals); Mario Goncalves De Araujo, Jr., Laila Andresa Cavalcante, Arlene Silva, Juan Maria Braceras, Paulo Andre Mettig, Mario Soares, Margarita Ciclilova, Margarita Ciclilova, Jr. (violin); Toninho Ferragutti (accordion); Javier Zalba (alto saxophone/reeds); Manuel "Guajiro" Mirabal (trumpet); Omar Gonzalez (double bass); Ramses Rodriguez (drums); Emilio Del Monte Mata (bata); Bogham Costa (tambourine); Botas Gordas, Boghan Costa, Ale Siqueira (hand claps); Carlos Manuel Calunga, Emilio Del Monte Valdes, Pepe Maza (background vocals); Additional Guests: Omara Portuondo (vocals); Vincente Amigo (flamenco guitar); Carlinhos Brown (gaita); Orland "Cachaito" Lopez (double bass).
When most people think of Cuban jazz, it is usually the flamboyant excesses of showmen like Arturo Sandoval and Gonzalo Rubalcaba that spring to mind. The more traditional, and only tangentially jazz-related sounds of the Buena Vista Social Club seem to occupy the other extreme, and I must say that I find neither very satisfactory. Enter 31 year old pianist Roberto Fonseca, who shows on his fourth album as leader that there is a viable middle ground.
Despite his well documented links to the Buena Vista crowd, if I were to come to this record blindfolded I’d almost certainly say that I was listening to a European group. The first thing that strikes me about Fonseca is how far his music escapes from its country of origin. Perhaps this is inevitable, given the broadness of Fonseca’s musical interests and his dual musical heritage. As well as playing traditional Cuban music, he was also classically trained from an early age and he possesses a formidable technique.
As a jazz pianist he belongs firmly in the modern mainstream - that’s to say he begins with the rich harmonic palette and melodicism of Bill Evans, adding a more muscular drive and chordal dissonance borrowed from McCoy Tyner. What distinguishes him from many of his contemporaries, however, is his truly ‘world-jazz’ outlook. Eclecticism is a difficult act to pull off without sounding contrived, but Fonseca’s rich piano is the unifying theme that glues Zamazu together, and it indicates that he has absorbed his formative influences well.
The opening is dramatic, an a cappella vocal sung by Fonseca’s mother. This short introduction seamlessly gives way to Fonseca’s first major statement of the disc; the ballad ‘Tierra En Mano’. Clarinet states a simple melancholy theme, followed by a bridge which deploys wordless vocals, before Fonseca launches into the kind of rhapsodic ballad most people would identify with Keith Jarrett. Anybody who can even contemplate entering this arena, where virtuosity is a prerequisite, needs to be taken seriously. Fonseca achieves a coherent statement, full of unexpected harmonic twists and turns. The percussion here is spare, a minimal pulse or heartbeat, though this is not to say that the South American flair for dense poly-rhythms aren’t explored elsewhere. The very next track, in fact, sees a marked change of pace. ‘Clandestino’ presumably translates pretty literally, though there’s nothing too undercover about the pianist’s forthright solo. The busy percussive clatter reminds me of some of Jon Balke’s ECM discs, another pleasing point of reference to make Fonseca quickly endearing. Obvious links are to Tyner, the dark, urgent chordal probing that I love so much making it a standout track.
‘Llego Cachaito’ is another mid-tempo piece that evokes Jarrett, a soothing change of pace that is typical in a generally well balanced programme of music. A short turbulent interlude suggests mid ‘60s Chick Corea, before leading into the Eastern exotica of ‘Congo Arabe’, which stands comparison with some of the best explorations of North African culture from the contemporary French scene. The astringent reeds solo which follows, on an instrument that may even be a tarragato, took me to the balkans, and this is immediately followed by some nylon stringed guitar hinting at flamenco. Which ever musical dialect he adopts, Fonseca is in command and the music retains an organic feel.
The title-track is very African, and immediately reminded me of many happy times listening to Bheki Mseleku in the ‘90s when he was based in the UK. A simple anthemic melody is underpinned by a vocal chant, and Fonseca’s lush and hypnotic vamping. He then solos and shows the kind of close connection between left and right hands that Brad Mehldau excels at. ‘Ishmael’ is a post-fusion piece, again looking East for inspiration but offering evidence that Fonseca listened to Weather Report in his youth. Wordless vocals are shadowed by keyboards, underpinned by Fonseca’s firm left-hand ostinato pattern, then giving way to a solo backed by timbales to offer the most overtly Cuban music of the disc. ‘Triste Alegria’ stays in the same continent to serve up some Argentinian tango, whilst ‘Zmazamazu’ returns to the Townships for another African excursion. The closing ‘Dime Que No’ has a slow latin groove that winds things down without any fanfare, and if I have any criticism of the disc then it is that the second half seems to be weaker than the first.
Whether or not world jazz is your bag will pretty much determine whether or not you’ll enjoy this record. What I can say is that many projects in this field go wrong by offering too much ‘world’ and not enough ‘jazz’. Fonseca has assimilated the jazz vocabulary and it surfaces at every turn. Certainly eclectic, but with enough coherence, enough passion, enough virtuosity and enough solid material to be taken seriously. Time to replace those preconceptions about Cuban jazz, I think.