Brazilian jazz and its musical impact is the focus of Celebrando, a collaborative effort between harmonica virtuoso Hendrik Meurkens and bassist Gabriel Espinosa, together with a supporting cast of musical fellow travelers of no mean talent in their own right. In Portuguese and Spanish, the liner notes explain, the album’s title means celebrating, and it is indeed a celebration on at least three accounts. It celebrates the general influence of Brazilian ideas on musicians and audiences. It celebrates the influence of Brazilian jazz on this current ensemble of artists who have devoted themselves to the exploration and development of its dynamic possibilities. And finally, it celebrates the 100th album released by the independent New York-based label, Zoho Music.
It is an album worth celebration. Joining Meurkens and Espinoza are Anat Cohen (clarinet, saxophone), Jim Seeley (trumpet, flugelhorn) and Misha Tsiganov (piano). Tsiganov has played on previous Meurkens albums, including last year’s recording of his quartet, Live at Bird’s Eye. Antonio Sanchez and Mauricio Zottarelli split the work on the drums. Alison Wedding handles vocals, which in this case are wordless vocalise, and Molly Blythe sings back-up.
For me, album’s high spots are in the interaction between Cohen and Meurkens as in their mastery of the Choro rhythms in “Frenzelosa (Choro No.2).” They work together like a well oiled machine and emerge with a dynamic sound. There is also some nice vocal (Wedding), harmonica, and clarinet trio work on “Pa Rio,” an Espinosa-composed bossa nova. Cohen takes up the tenor sax for a Tsiganov composition, “Out of Reach.” Both she and Meurkens turn in some delightful solos, as does the composer himself. The tune builds in excitement to an extended bit for drummer Sanchez. “Maya Roots” has a haunting melody carried through the clarinet. Espinosa talks about “the mood of Mayan music, with the influence of jazz and Brazilian.”
This is not to say the ensemble meldings of Seeley, Wedding, and Meurkens are less than stellar. They put together some exciting harmonies on the album’s finale, the title song, “Celebrando,” a samba composed by Espinosa. “She Lives in Brazil,” a Tsiganov samba, features a blurry fingered solo by the composer, followed by a Seeley romp on his muted trumpet, not to mention some vocal acrobatics from Wedding. “Odessa in April” may not be “April in Paris,” but it has something of that April vibe. Meurkens explains: “Voice, flugelhorn, and harmonica together is a great color that I tried here for the first time.” No question, the man knows what he’s talking about.
An Espinosa composition, “La Esperanza,” a bossa nova, opens the album. It features some fine scatting from Wedding that is complemented by a Meurkens solo and Tsiganov on the electric piano, and provides an excellent preview of coming attractions. Meurkens’ “Slow Breeze” once again has Wedding strutting her stuff, now in tandem with Meurkens’ harmonica.
Tsiganov and Seeley add some highlights of their own. The one piece on the album not written by Espinosa, Meurkens or Tsiganov is Luis Demetrio’s bolero, “La Puerta.” Espinosa does the vocal with a quiet conviction that stands in stark contrast to the Wedding vocal arabesques that run through the rest of the album.
The nice thing about an album like Celebrando is that while focusing on one particular musical tradition, it makes sure to illustrate that tradition’s variety of moods and voices. Brazilian jazz has its signature elements, but it also offers all kinds of opportunities to take those elements in different directions, and the new and different directions are what will keep the music lively and relevant. As long as the likes of Meurkens and Espinosa, Cohen and Seeley, Wedding and Tsiganov are around exploring those new directions, there is sure to be plenty of vibrant music still to come, and we can look forward to “Celebrando 200.”