Album of the Week: Distancia, Magos Herrera

by chip on June 12, 2009

Magos Herrera
Sunnyside Records

The modern jazz world has moved beyond simple stylistic definitions and evolved into an amalgam of diverse cultures and artistic aesthetics. While most jazz musicians hold onto a cultural background that informs their artistic expressions, their palette of musical influences constantly expands upon that foundation. Modern musicians simply have access to so much music and information; their studies and practice can move past the characteristics of their primary musical community. This is not a new trend – jazz musicians throughout history have spent lifetimes building upon their artistic personalities. The amount of information today allows musicians to quickly digest multiple new influences and blend them into an original and individually defined sound. An artist’s statement of personal identity becomes more prominent and the distinguishing stylistic elements of their influences become less obvious. On many levels, their music escapes classification and needs to be accepted at face value. This leaves the musician exposed on many levels; their artist concept needs to remain solid since they don’t have established stylistic conventions to support their ideas. It’s a challenging prospect that pushes tradition and performance into a new area of evolution that should only be explored by the most competent musicians. Mexican vocalist Magos Herrera collaborates with a group of top-notch New York musicians to explore this ideal on Distancia, creating distinctly modern jazz that combines contemporary jazz performance approaches with elements of Latin culture.

Blending Spanish Lyrics With A Modern Jazz Foundation
Herrera creates an adventurous combination of jazz and Latin culture by blending Spanish lyrics with a decidedly modern jazz foundation on several original compositions. Herrera steadily scats an ostinato based around a 7 beat cycle on “Reencuentro,” soon supported with spacious comping and a loose rhythmic pulse while she opens her scat into a full improvisation. Moving into the main melody, Herrera delicately soars through a rich lyric, using subtle dynamic changes, a shifting time signature, and rich harmonies to add shape and style to the verse-chorus song form. Guitarist Lionel Loueke begins his improvisation with space before building tension through interactive conversation and steps outside the harmonic structure. Pianist Aaron Goldberg starts a simple vamp that soon finds momentum through interlocking parts from Loueke and bassist Ricky Rodriguez on “Tus Ojos,” establishing a solid foundation for Herrera’s strong entrance. There’s a sense of urgency in Herrera’s expressive voice, encouraged by the tense harmonic structure that drives her melody into an effective message. After a scat interlude, Goldberg firmly states his opening ideas and then travels through a series of intelligent and original developments that push drummer Alex Kautz into an interactive frenzy. Loueke and Goldberg enter with distinct vamps that emphasize different pieces of the 6/8 rhythmic foundation on “Alegria,” setting the stage for Herrera’s dramatic vocal that comes to life with subtle articulations and dips into the upper register of her range. Waves of rich chords and moving melodies characterize Goldberg’s statement, which calls upon a McCoy Tyner influence to create an open and intense sound over the modal structure. Herrera jumps into a scat solo that displays an individual approach to improvisation, picking less common notes and using a legato phrasing that results in a potent personal expression. Each song confirms Herrera’s strong and distinct songwriting skills, as she seamlessly weaves Spanish lyrics and experimental musical elements into a flexible jazz setting.

Integrating English Lyrics While Staying Focused Upon Her Concept
Herrera reaches into portions of jazz and pop territory while staying connected to the Latin music world with a group of songs based around English lyrics. Long chordal washes and meandering scat syllables set a melancholy tone in Herrera’s “New Song” until the rhythm section establishes a steady groove for the English lyric and then bursts into a funky double-time rhythm. Loueke adds a thoughtful aspect to the song with African language lyrics that sit in the background while he pursues subtle interactions between his guitar and Goldberg’s piano. After a brief return to Herrera’s vocal, she establishes a repeated scat figure while Kautz enthusiastically digs into a colorful improvisation behind the band. Goldberg and Herrera quietly create a beautifully understated duet interpretation of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Inútil Paisaje” with Herrera expressively exploring the Portuguese lyric. Kautz lightly moves brushes over his drum kit while Rodriguez’s deep rich bass tone resonates behind Goldberg’s simply elegant improvisation that proves less notes often make a more meaningful statement. Herrera offers a slightly more upbeat and refreshed view on the song with an English translation of the lyric over the gently moving pulse of the rhythm section. Loueke builds energetic variations upon a short lick as Rodriguez provides a punchy pedal tone over Kautz’s up-tempo swing on “Staying Closer” which Herrera contrasts with a broad and dreamy lyric. Herrera pushes the song forward by slowly connecting with the band’s addictive momentum, until Loueke begins his improvisation with a careful intensity that grows into an engaging idea. The group moves back into the melody, allowing Herrera to utilize her powerfully expressive voice to deliver her message before the band breaks down into an effective tidal wave of overdubbed scat from Loueke and Herrera. There are definite steps into new territory as Herrera explores English lyrics on these tracks, but her concept never falters and the group stays deeply connected to a modern jazz sound.

Unique Interpretations Of Classic Standards
Herrera stays firmly rooted in tradition with a selection of classic standards from different backgrounds, all interpreted through her unique artistic vision. The rhythm section provides colorful flourishes as Herrera puts a new spin onto Milton Nascimento’s Brazilian classic “Vera Cruz” with an original set of Spanish lyrics. The group eventually falls into an up-tempo cha cha cha flavored rhythm, allowing Herrera to build the melody into an exciting climax before Loueke leaps into an energetic improvisation, full of engaging rhythmic phrases. Herrera dives into a broad array of rich overdubbed vocal harmonies that transition the band into a funky groove that rides behind an addictive wave of short interlocking rhythmic phrases from Herrera and Loueke. As Goldberg provides a thoughtfully supportive backdrop, Herrera demonstrates a potent ability to expose her inner voice with a highly personal reading of Caesar Portillo De la Luz’s classic “Tu, Mi Delirio” that takes flight as Kautz and Rodriguez enter with a subtly funky groove. Goldberg finds a distinct duality in his solo, playing upon the lush beauty of the song’s classic chord changes while taking sudden dips into the bluesy nature implied by the rhythm section. Herrera returns with a commanding presence, delivering a boldly impassioned version of the melody before playfully trading short rhythmic scat ideas with Loueke’s guitar licks. Despite the serious nature of an exposed vocal and piano duet, Herrera infuses a joyful enthusiasm into the introduction on Jobim’s “Dindi” before the rhythm section falls into a loose bossa nova groove for Herrera’s highly individual reading of the main melody. Loueke and Herrera wind through a unison interlude that leads directly into an inspired improvisation from the guitarist, who tears through the chord changes with a confident vigor. As the group returns to the main melody, Herrera claims undisputed ownership over the song with a broad interpretation that stretches notes and alters rhythms until she simply jumps into a completely original scat. These tracks provide Herrera the opportunity to expose her vast vocal abilities and expressive range while showing the strength of her core concept, which remain intact throughout each song.

A Modern Expression Of Jazz Performance And Latin Culture
Herrera ventures into the modern and individualistic world of jazz performance on Distancia, delivering a personal vision that builds upon foundations of Latin culture. The strength of Herrera’s original compositions sit at the core of her artistic concept with solid ideas and flexible structures that serve as perfect vehicles for improvisation. Whether writing in Spanish or English, her lyrics flow with a poetic nature that conveys a sense of dignity and a substantial intelligent message. Herrera takes these words and breathes life into them through her captivating vocal performances on every track. She holds a powerfully expressive ability to communicate emotion and meaning through her voice that captures the essence of each song. Herrera’s performance shows more than simple vocal chops, she reveals the ability to build upon an idea from the beginning to end of a song. Her performance does more than simply demonstrate a mastery of the musical material – it tells the musical story behind the notes. Herrera’s band supports her at every turn with a sensitive and interactive intensity that solidifies her core concept. Goldberg’s colorful harmonic palette paints broad strokes upon each song while Rodriguez and Kautz shape the compositions with dynamically varying textures. Loueke proves himself on many levels; as an accompanist he gently pushes Herrera and as a soloist he explodes with a clearly individual approach. Herrera creates a thoroughly modern expression of jazz performance and Latin culture on Distancia, easily holding the weight of an intelligent and complex sound with her prodigious musicianship.

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