Wednesday, January 27, 2010

24th January 2010 Latin Music USA concert (Part 2): Big Three Palladium Orchestra@The Barbican, London

The Barbican Centre is no stranger to Latin music. Constructed along brutalist lines, its squat hard-edged demeanour has housed more than its fair share of beauty; a place where Oscar D'León 'El sonero del mundo' and the late great Celia Cruz have fashioned rapture from the stage of its main hall. The Big Three Palladium Orchestra (B3PO) would be the next to join that illustrious pantheon, once again to a sold-out crowd nineteen-hundred strong at Europe's largest performing arts centre. I think sometimes Latin artists are astounded by the level of support their endeavours can garner in Britain.

I'd done my homework before arriving...

On A Flying Walkway Journey To The Barbican's Main Hall

I knew that the B3PO had been formed by Mario Grillo, son of Frank "Machito" Grillo and named after Mario Bauzá, as a one-off project nearly a decade ago. With approval from the Puente and Rodríguez estates it was conceived, by what has been described by the New York Times, as a "Latin repetory orchestra" playing music derived from the original charts of the three original bandleaders of the New York mambo era: Machito, Tito Rodríguez, and Tito Puente.

Reception at its debut was overwhelming, such that the ensemble was obliged to continue.

B3PO boasted pianist Gilberto Colón Jr. and conguero Eddie Montalvo in its line-up, both having played with the original big three at some point in their careers. Four trumpets, four saxophones (alto, tenor, baritone), bass, bongó, and three vocalists surrounded a centrepiece of two glimmering sets of timbales - one for Tito Rodríguez Jr. and the other for Mario Grillo.

For the BBC's celebration, they were joined by three heavy-hitters: pianist Larry Harlow of the Fania era; trombonist and bandleader Jimmy Bosch; and the Cuban virtuoso violinist Gabriel Fonseca. Frightening stuff.

My curiosity was two-fold:
  • whether both 'Juniors' could live up to the expectations that their marketing had been based on - that is, a talent for performance worthy of comparison with their uniquely gifted namesakes; and
  • whether the Big Three Palladium Orchestra would live up to its billing as "The most brilliant large Latin Jazz ensemble this side of Havana" (Chicago Tribune), or be more than that and capture the vibrant essence of the mambo.
It was the intermission and these thoughts were running through my mind. La Exelencia had just finished, and I would have not relished following that act.

The limelight illuminated the slender frame of Machito Jr. who, as a highly charming public speaker, began in the role of Master of Ceremonies and bandleader. The B3PO concert structurally assumed the form of three contiguous sets: first was Tito Rodríguez Jr. on timbales interpreting his father's music; second, Larry Harlow playing his own salsa and Latin Jazz numbers; and finally Mario Grillo with Machito's compositions on the other set of timbales.

Heavy hitter: Jimmy Bosch's trombone
launches a rasping mambo solo during
"Avisale A Mi Contrario"

They opened with the infectious classic "Mama Guela", again one of their strongest numbers, before inviting Jimmy Bosch on board as a soloist for the second piece. Listening to him play throughout the sets, I was struck by his ability to adapt his improvisations to suit the mambo, Latin jazz and salsa idioms - here was a rare performer, a person who fully understood the contexts of his art.

And then there was Gabriel Fonseca. "El Conde", as he is sometimes known, chose to play in a way that leaned more on his tenure with Original de Manzanillo and Candido Fabré underpinned with his philharmonic training, than toward the route of Alfredo de la Fé. It was the perfect decision which counterpointed the Latin Jazz essence of the orchestra; think Rubén Gonzalez on strings.

Soneros receiving the solo from
Cuban violinist Gabriel Fonseca

Joe was up and at it again to Larry Harlow's "La Cartera", warbling "ya no tengo más dinero" and hot-stepping his salsa thing (I would be regaled to that in spontaneous bursts on the homeward leg the rest of the night). He later revealed that he used to have that song on a cassette of salsa classics; that he must have flipped it over hundreds of times in his FIAT, driving from latino party to latino party growing up in D.C.

Joe never knew the name of the song, nor the artist, until this night.

And that as a teenager then, he would never have guessed that he'd be listening it again, live, to the original performing artist (Larry Harlow's verson was on Joe's tape; "La Cartera" was originally written by Arsenio Rodríguez), sitting next to a Malaysian Latin ethnomusicologist salsa-friend. I'll take a compliment any which way it comes.

"Oye Como Va", a rightful tribute to Tito Puente, was the Big Three Palladium Orchestra's finale. For me, it only highlighted the project as an incomplete endeavour with the absence of Tito Puente Jr.

In the end, I found the presence of 'Machito Jr.' in the position of band director largely superfluous during Rodríguez's set. He made the motions of conducting the rhythmic breaks, but the brass section was already playing them; it told me that the 'cues' were illusionary. And the time when a conductor was needed, when the brass were slipping ahead of the rhythm section, it was the more accented playing and hard stare of Gilberto Colón Jr. that brought them back into line.

I think if he wanted to complete the mirage and marketing image of bearing Machito's baton, Mario would be a more convincing stage presence during the first part as a maraquero. He had a defined space during the third set at the timbales; his strokes, although more awkward looking, were cleaner than those of Tito Rodríguez Jr.

In answer to my curiosity, neither of the Juniors played in a way that approached the virtuosity of their illustrious fathers. But there is no shame in that - a century would consider itself lucky to be blessed with one, let alone three such gifts.

And yes, the Big Three Palladium Orchestra is identifiably a Latin Jazz orchestra, to be distinguished from the mambo orchestras. The difference? Exuberance. You can hear it in the mambo. Latin Jazz is more given to introversion, the biggest culprit of this was the brass section which performed in a manner, being so attached to their charts, decoupled from the rest of the band. The biggest improvement, if it wanted to go down the extroverted mambo route and engage more with its audience, is for the brass to do the really tough thing and play without music scores in front of them.

Dancing is what made the Palladium famous. A colour-blind dance floor in an age of racial discrimination. A scintillating atmosphere attracting Hollywood's brightest stars, thereby sparking social acceptance.

Larry Harlow's "La Cartera" draws everyone to their feet

We owe Mario Grillo a huge debt of gratitude. For having the vision and commitment to negotiate and forge this orchestra together; for the opportunity to remember or experience anew the music of the Palladium's best-known years.

That the Spirit of 53rd and Broadway live on beyond its mortal shell.

(On to Epilogue.)

Loo Yen Yeo

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

24th January 2010 Latin Music USA concert (Part 1): La Excelencia@The Barbican, London

Joe, my partner-in-crime in the Big Smoke, and I looked about ourselves at the throng milling in the lobby and voiced our thoughts simultaneously, "this is a strange crowd." By 'strange' we didn't mean weird nor grotesque, oh no. I mean unusual or unanticipated. We were queueing, waiting to be let into the main auditorium where the promise of Latin Music heaven beckoned. A stellar collection of musicians had been assembled, in the words of the publicity blurb, "to coincide with a major BBC Four TV series exploring the incredible story of Latin Music in the USA." To set the record straight, the series "Latin Music USA" is a PBS production which will begin airing on BBC4 this week.

And that explained the cast of ticket-holders: predominantly British, very few Latinos, of a higher average age than one would see at a salsa club. I call them the Buena Vista Social Club (BVSC) gang: silvering haired, non-dancing (not salsa at least), world-music lovers of a previously alternative-lifestyle bent. Joe was hugely disappointed, poor thing - I'd goaded his delinquent imagination with the prospect of gorgeous Colombian eye-candy... but my conscience remained as still as a Zen Buddhist monk on Musical Statues day. I knew ultimately that he'd get the biggest kick out of La Excelencia, who were billed to open the concert.

Yes, you read that right.

I couldn't believe it myself when I read the sketchy prelim blurb weeks ago: the Big 3 Palladium Orchestra, Larry Harlow, Jimmy Bosch, and La Excelencia; with the ivory talents of Gilberto Colón Jr. announced at the eleventh hour. It had always been a regret of mine that I hadn't been able to introduce Joe to their music, which is one hundred percent up his alley; so when the chance came along, I pounced.

As the hubbub quietened under the flare of lights, I perched forward on the edge of my seat. When it comes to performing to club salseros, La Excelencia are Giants, no doubt about it. But being a display band to a largely non-dancing audience is a different cup of tea altogether - the proscenium can be a yawning gulf to reach out across without the energy of a receptively gyrating audience to assist you.

'Take your strongest song and put that at the end. Then take your next-strongest and put that at the beginning.' That's an old performing adage that held true when they struck up.

Salsa Dura, brassy and unapologetic. I looked around to see some quizzical expressions; adrenaline was proving to be an long-unfamiliar experience to the BVSC gang more used to the likes of Omara Portuondo's "Dos Gardenias".

"So... you think you can just sit back and
enjoy our music with a comfy cuppa tea eh?
Take that, you crumpet-eaters!"

The spectacle was there, filling the whole stage: three singers, piano, bass, congas, timbales, bongó, two trumpets, and two trombones. It was clear that the crew of La Excelencia knew there was a whole lot of reaching out to be done, and they played with the intent of 10-tonne semi ploughing through the stalls; as well practiced and as slick as I remembered them. It was ninety minutes of high-octane stuff drawn mostly from "Mi Tumbao Social".

Joe's feet started tapping. Then he clapped clave. He used to be our conguero in 4 de Diciembre. Then came the stomping. With the percussion solos in "Aña Pa' Mi Tambor" he mimed the complimentary gestures of wheels falling off a cart (previously reserved only for Edwin Bonilla). By the time "Unidad" came along, Joe was already on his feet; and I had an eye out for an emergency defibrillator.

Any honest live performer will tell you that there is no such thing as a perfect gig.

On a night filled with gorgeous display, my only tinge of disappointment came from "Aña Pa' Mi Tambor". Normally it's my favourite number, but something happened that felt like a drop in tempo during the rumba clave unison break - it bled energy from the song which took until the percussion solos to restore. Perhaps it was an intentional shift in dynamics; I personally preferred the sense of abandon with which they played in Leeds. La Excelencia's best renditions of the night, for me, belonged to "American Sueño" and their closing number, "Unidad". It's by no coincidence that these songs came from the latter part of their set...

The sound engineers could have done more to rise to the band's quality. No graceful band would ever dream of publicly commenting on its sound support, but as a member of the paying audience, I can.

It took Front-of-House (FoH) three songs alone to dial out the ponderous bass boom in the mid-to-upper tiers; and two more to alleviate some of the vocals' boxiness. The timbales should have been close-mic'ed; the single overhead narrow condenser picked up mostly the cymbals and hardly the crucial timbale/mambo bell and shells. Normally an engineer would be scanning the stage thinking, "what instrument can't I hear?" but this one obviously wasn't, as bongó bell and clave were never in the mix. Onstage monitoring was possibly better, judging from the interactions of the musicians - I saw just the expected amounts of gesticulation at the start.

The Barbican should consider giving their sound engineers sabbaticals at JSS or BlastPA.

The proof of the pudding will be when the two concerts are aired this Friday (for Big 3) and the following one (for La Excelencia) after the episodes of Latin Music USA. Then, I'll be able to tell just how much data had entered the FoH desk, and compare it to what I recall issuing from the PA. It'll also tell me just how good the BBC's production team are.

Even in the midst of adversity, the young musicians managed to bridge the distance; there were pockets of dancers mushroomed amongst the seats. The Killjoy of Health & Safety quashed any prospect of dancing in the aisles, that is until right at the very end. At the climax of Unidad's montuno, José Vázquez-Cofresí upped his congas and raced his cohort down the stairs to the stalls; there to enjoin everyone in a taste of an impromptu street rumba.

José's conga smack-down, egged on by his wicked cohort

How do you ambush the proscenium? You render it irrelevant by taking yourself across it, naturally!

That move, as they did when the brass played their way through the dancefloor in Leeds, reinforces what was once one of salsa's central tenets: that there should be no distance between musicians and dancers. In doing so, it indicates the young band's mature understanding of tradition. The little get-together also paid heed to yet another stage adage: "always make sure the last thing you leave is a smile." They certainly did.

José's facebook status later read:
"Originally the BBC was going to air a small portion of La Excelencia's performance along side the Big 3 after the first episode of Latin Music USA. Just announced !! The BBC has decided to air our entire performance at the Barbican in London after the second episode. The broadcast will air on Friday, February 5th at 10pm on BBC"
I'm so pleased, and relieved, that someone at the BBC has not only been capable of recognising quality, but also been in a position to exercise creative and executive power in getting the decision through. Let's make no bones about it, this is a big break for a hard-working band on an independent label. It would have been a gross oversight, based on the relative performances of La Excelencia and the Big 3 Palladium Orchestra, not to have done.

Como se forma una rumba: La Excelencia showing the
Brits how to party, New York street-style

Make sure you watch it. Or get someone to record it. Do both.

Some hours later, on the way home, Joe said, "Loo, you were right."

"Of course I was," I replied. "What about?"

"How you described La Excelencia in one line."

Fania, on Steroids.

(On to Part Two).

Loo Yeo

Monday, January 11, 2010

12th Night Extravaganza 2010

The North's first regional shin-dig of 2010 re-adopted the shape of an all-dayer with a pre-event party; a format which had served it well two years ago when the Extravaganza was located at St.John's. This time, it was spread across two sites: the salsa hotbed that Wetherby's Engine Shed has become; and the facilities at the University of York.

I'd hatched plans to inflict myself on the Pipers this whole weekend, arriving with a salve of aged rum and delectable chocolates. Stepping over the threshold, I piled into the bustling activity of pulling the paperwork, equipment, and comestibles together for 'Shedding'; the new popular verb that the region's salseros of the region have come up with. Uncertainty lingered in the air held aloft by the harshest winter in three decades - the same stretch of weather which had affected 4de12's gig in Yarm, had put paid to a vast number of salsa-related events in what would normally be peak lesson season.

As it turns out, consternation need not have creased their brows.

A great number of salsa faithful braved icy conditions to dance at Wetherby, filling the Shed to comfortable capacity. The pre-event party began with chachachá lessons for a change: beginners on the upper floor led by George 'Dr. Salsa' and Vicky; 'improvers' on the main floor with Lee and Nuriye. I was very interested to experience how U.K. mainstream salsa teachers approached the teaching of this dance 'club-style', and so spread my time observing the two classes.

Both of them were conventionally routine-based. The primary emphasis of the beginners class was on the rhythm and then in the context of a short sequence; the timing stresses were ballroom On2 instead of Cuban contratiempo. The content of the intermediates class drew from International Latin (I saw a fan and a natural top) with little tweaks brought in from Cross-body salsa. As the foremost objective of any club teaching is engendering the confidence to use the material within a limited time, it was a mark of success to find chachachá on the floor throughout the evening.

The Engine Shed was everything I remembered it to be when 4 de Diciembre last brought it live salsa: everyone is welcoming and accommodating, the atmosphere suffused with a warm vivid energy. The night sped away, powered of a myriad of fine and sometimes barely-decorous dances. By the time the Pipers and I returned to Base Camp to grab some shut-eye, the clock had ticked perilously close to 05:00.

Four hours later, Tony and I were unloading kit in front of York University's Roger Kirk Centre. This year, having found my feet around the event, I eschewed attending the sessions in favour of being organisationally more useful. What time there was in between, I spent caffeinating and socialising in part as barometer to the success of the event.

Then late in the afternoon, I spotted Alex Wilson and made his acquaintance.

Apart from his band being the main attraction that evening, Alex was at 12th Night with Lee Knights to run an evening session promoting their newly-released endeavour "Find the Rhythm". The pedagogy of Latin rhythm is a matter very close to my heart and we experienced no uncommon ground; I found Alex to be a man hugely talented, yet unassuming and disarmingly engaging.

He invited me to the soundcheck, an opportunity I could not have passed up.

It was highly educative. Here was a performer who knew exactly what he wanted, and the sound crew were all the more appreciative for it: from how he laid out the stage, listened to the individual instruments, the verbal expressions used in describing the sounds he was after, the meticulous attention to detail. With the whole band together, he did as I do; use the soundcheck to hone specific sections of the playlist.

Alex Wilson engaging with Front of House during soundcheck
(Public Address provided by JSS Audio)

I must mention Elpidio Caicedo, the bassist from Buenaventura after whom the number Sabrosón is written. He's an irrepressible ray of Colombian sunshine (seen above in the woolly hat) blessed with a great set of pipes: playing Latin bass and taking lead vocals simultaneously commands respect. Talking drums and music with the rhythm section over dinner made me late for Alex and Lee's class. After leading the band back to their dressing room, I slipped into the main hall to find the class of fifty split into three groups doing vocalisations for tumbao moderno (congas), martillo (bongó), and cáscara (timbales) - Alex dubbed them the 'Human Salsa Orchestra', and it was an attendance that only someone of his musical standing could have inspired.

The objective was to open the band's second set with staggered entries of the three sections and the session closed with a practice of these entries. This was the second time that this workshop had been run by Lee and Alex, and I can't help but think that Alex missed a trick here. Percussion, though crucial, can be pretty dry on its own - it would have been a little bit of magic for the attendees if Alex had jumped on to stage and accompanied the Human Salsa Orchestra on the piano for a few bars, just to tie the class up with a pretty contextual bow.

The last time I saw Alex Wilson and his band was at the Derby Assembly Rooms in March 2007 when his cover of Chaka Khan's "Ain't Nobody" had stormed the salsa floors. This time they were even better: then, the orchestra leaned definitively towards Soul; at the Extravaganza, Soul was artistically counter-balanced with a more profound expression of Latin rhythm. But I'd already expected this after hearing a dynamite güajira influenced snippet at soundcheck.

Among an evening littered with highlights, one of the brightest has to be sharing a dance with Lee to Alex's "Inglaterra" with Elpi hooting at us over the montuno.

It was daybreak by the time the Pipers and I had finished undoing the ravages of the Extravaganza. Sunday afternoon lunch was a leisurely affair, and Tony tells me that the day after 12th Night is always his most relaxed in the year. It was dark by the time I stepped off the train at Sheffield station.

Casting back a year ago, I remembered thinking that Tony was risking an awful lot by considering booking Alex; Palenke were unavailable, and he didn't want to bring 12th Night down the value chain by not booking a band. The Extravaganza has always been a labour of love for the Pipers, and I'm thankful in the end that it still is.

Loo Yen

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Act of Creation

Bloom's Taxonomy describes a hierarchy of learning achievement which educators might use to benchmark the progress of a student. As a self-learner, I use it as a core tool to classify, quoting from the above link, "the different objectives that educators (i.e. myself) set for students (i.e. myself)." Not only does it chart my movement through a hierarchy of development, but it manages one of the greatest hurdles to self-instruction - the NOT knowing of what's missing.

Being aware of what's missing means you know what it is and can go looking for it - you've already identified the outline of the absent piece. NOT knowing what's missing, however, is more akin to being unaware that a colour is missing from the spectrum. It means pockets of blissful ignorance that can spring up and bite you in the developmental derrière after you've passed them by.

Bloom's taxonomy goes some way to delimiting Unknown unknowns by asking questions from the developmental end-point, illuminating the darkness of the unknown from the perspective of a hypothetical subject-matter expert. The pinnacle of Anderson and Krathwohl's modification of the cognitive domain published in 2001 (my preferred variant) is 'Creating' - where the learner is capable of synthesising new knowledge within the domain. By asking myself all the time, "what pieces do I need in order to be able to create something?" I simulate the existence of a mentor. It goes a long way to protecting my delectable derrière from the Unexpected's fangs of ignorance.

On the second day of 2010, I entered that tier with the congas.

Gettin' It Together is a song that I penned four years ago, and it has since become one of 4 de Diciembre 's go-to numbers. By 'go-to' I mean that it's a frequent denizen of our playlist as the perfect get-out-of-jail-free card:
  • it has a modern instead of traditional salsa vibe, great for varying the feel of a set;
  • the lyrics are in English, so the British audience relates well to it; and
  • we play it well with very little practice.
That last point is significant for two reasons: it indicates that Gettin' It Together must somehow connect with each band member at a personal level; and we've come to treat it with benign neglect like we might an obedient child, spending our energies on those seemingly more exciting or unruly.

As author of its lyrics, co-creator of its piano montuno, and originator of its bass tumbao, it would be fair to say that I would be the one with most insight into Gettin' It Together - how it is and what it could grow to be. Its conga marcha [rhythm] is based on the tumbao moderno and, while that was appropriate to my level of understanding at the time of conception, there was always a feeling unrealised potential. The dissatisfaction of "there has to be something better, I know it" gnawed more and more, until I at last gave my uncomplaining original its due care.

Scouring the pantheon of AfroCaribbean rhythms from comparsas to batucada, songo to plena, no delicate ankle could be found for the glass slipper. But the search was not fruitless; each step along the road led to a greater understanding of the ideal marcha's form: the movement of songo con marcha; the voicing of mozambique; a pocket of variability like the guaguancó's; accents on the rumba upbeat on the 3-side and the bombó; an option to accent the son or rumba ponché.

I wanted it all, because Gettin' It Together deserved a marcha with groove and freedom. More than that, it needed it. Time and again I've stood witness to how one single inspired change can unlock entire vistas of understanding in an ensemble.

It started as an 'Eureka!' moment of mental, then physical, vocalisation; followed by interpretation on the congas; and then an evaluation of its fit to a pre-recorded montuno and a mentally-modulated bassline. The new rhythm ticked every box on the ideal's wishlist. Looking up from the evening's solitary venture, my companion the minute hand had travelled but a quarter the clock's face. I've impudently dubbed the new rhythm Luzambique con marcha and can't help but feel that it's the herald of many good things to come (wait until my band-mates get a load of this baby).

Then came the realisation that I'd engaged with all the upper-level tiers of the cognitive domain...

Perhaps as a musician you might point out that being able to solo already falls under 'Creating', and that I'd already visited the pinnacle. Who am I to disagree? I would go further and contend that there are qualitative aspects within each tier. Starting off as a novice conguero I still recall the wonder I felt after playing the luscious Cándido's tumbao, thinking "such a divine talent he must have to create something so beautiful."

The transient, spontaneous Creativity of a solo is different to the articulate, immortal Creativity of a tumbao.

And in that, perhaps, is another act of knowledge creation: the idea that 'Creating' (and by logical extension every tier) broadly encompasses acts that may be qualitatively differentiated.

As for Bloom's taxonomy on dancing salsa, I'll leave that for another day.

Yeo Loo Yen