Hendrik Meurkens and Gabriel Espinosa – Celebrando – Zoho ZM 2012045, 54:17 ****:
(Hendrik Meurkens – harmonica, co-producer; Gabriel Espinosa – bass, vocals (tracks 5-9, 11), co-producer; Anat Cohen – clarinet (tracks 3, 5, 9), tenor saxophone (track 6); Jim Seeley – trumpet, Flugelhorn; Alison Wedding – vocals; Molly Blythe – background vocals (tracks 5, 7, 11); Misha Tsiganov – piano, Fender Rhodes; Antonio Sanchez – drums (tracks 2, 3, 5-7, 9); Mauricio Zottarelli – drums (tracks 1, 4, 8, 10, 11), percussion)
Sometimes it takes an international cast to succulently focus on the music of one country, like the Zoho label’s 100th release, Celebrando, featuring German-born harmonicist (and sometimes vibraphonist) Hendrik Meurkens and bassist Gabriel Espinosa, who was reared in Mexico. The two friends spotlight sambas, bossa novas, chorinhos and one classic bolero with help from Israeli clarinetist/saxophonist Anat Cohen, trumpeter and Flugelhorn player Jim Seeley (born in Kansas, based in New York City, and part of Arturo O’Farrill’s quintet), singer Alison Wedding (a bi-coastal American who has also lived in Australia), Russian keyboardist Misha Tsiganov (who is also a Big Apple transplant), Mexican drummer Antonio Sanchez (who has performed with Pat Metheny and others and now lives in the US), Brazilian drummer/percussionist Mauricio Zottarelli and up-and-coming singer Molly Blythe (an Iowan who adds backing vocals on three tracks).
Espinosa and Meurkens are no strangers to Brazilian music. Meurkens has been the leader on various albums which have concentrated on Latin jazz (some of which can be heard on his last release, Live at Bird’s Eye, which also included Tsiganov), while Espinosa’s 2009 venture, From Yucatan to Rio (with contributions from Wedding) uses Brazilian material as the bedrock. The bassist met Meurkens in performances at Iowa’s Central College (where Espinosa heads the jazz studies program) and the two immediately knew they needed to collaborate. The result is this 54-minute, 11-track undertaking which fuses modern jazz with Brazilian influences.
The tunes are mostly likeminded originals, with four penned by Espinosa, four written by Meurkens (who only plays harmonica on this outing), two by Tsiganov and rounding out the set list is an interpretation of a Luis Demetrio hit. The group begins with the optimistic Espinosa bossa nova nugget, “La Esperanza,” where Tsiganov commences with warmly funky Fender Rhodes, followed by Meurkens’ receptive harmonica lines and then Wedding’s wordless harmonizing is introduced. The three artists blend very well indeed. Espinosa’s assuredly spirited “Pa Rio” (a tribute to Rio de Janeiro) is another original bossa where Cohen’s fluid clarinet tones, Meurken’s equally fluent harmonica flourishes and Wedding and Blythe’s twinned voices elegantly mesh into an easy-flowing, melodic ferment. Espinosa showcases his origins with the lightly swaying “Maya Roots,” another piece which knits together clarinet, harmonica and Wedding’s occasional scatting. Espinosa says in the album’s liner notes “this song has the mood of Mayan music, with the influence of jazz and Brazilian.” Espinosa also created the title track, a festive and fun number which utilizes the partido alto samba style. The joyful arrangement highlights Wedding, Espinosa and Blythe’s trio vocal harmonies alongside Zottarelli’s enthusiastic drumming (his quiet storm of a solo is a highpoint). Espinosa’s glossy vocals can also be heard on Demetrio’s Spanish-language song “La Puerta,” a bolero which Espinosa grew up listening to.
Meurken’s pieces run the gamut from the wistful “Slow Breeze,” inspired by Brazilian guitarist Toninho Horta (a cut which confirms just how satisfactorily harmonica and voice can smartly merge), to the upbeat “Frenzelosa (Choro No. 2),” an exuberant performance based on the popular Brazilian urban choro musical form, where Cohen’s clarinet and Meurken’s chromatic harmonica effortlessly commingle and complement each other. Meurkens also revisits his well-liked and delightful “Mountain Drive,” (initially offered on his 2004 record Amazon River). This version includes one of Meurken’s finer harmonica solos and Seeley’s correspondingly luminous Flugelhorn improvisation.
Not to be outdone, Tsiganov’s two tracks are also memorable. The amiable “Out of Reach” (which has an affable, mid-tempo 6/4 pattern) is notable for Cohen’s tenor sax, which shifts from a slow-burning swagger to a tempting and tender tone. Even more outstanding is the leaping “She Lives in Brazil,” an up-tempo samba where Tsiganov’s rapid right-hand runs are beyond measure. Seeley is likewise stellar on muted trumpet, while Zottarelli whips up a percussive tempest on drums and percussion. Wedding and Meurkens hold their own as well, with Meurkens’ breakneck harmonica another standout.
TrackList: La Esperanza; Slow Breeze; Frenzelosa (Choro No. 2); Odessa in April; Pa Rio; Out of Reach; La Puerta; She Lives in Brazil; Maya Roots; Mountain Drive; Celebrando.
A Texas singer-songwriter’s legend lives on with this journey of personal discovery and anecdotal cleverness.