Bernardo Monk’s A Toda Orquesta – the passion and rigor of tango, the expressive freedom of jazz

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Without a doubt, the greatest aspect of running The Music and Myth for four and a half years has been the opportunity to discover a wide and varied array of new music. Most of the time, it’s simply because I’m paying more attention to what’s playing around me, or what I’m randomly playing as background music for my long writing sessions. I’ve also been more proactive about seeking out new music since I’ve started this website.

Some of the time, I discover new music while following the careers of my favorite musicians. Through their countless collaborations, I’m exposed to the talent of fascinating new artists. That’s how Tom Waits led me to Marc Ribot who, in turn, led me to John Zorn, in whose concerts I’ve discovered the likes of John Medeski, Joey Baron, Mike Patton and Sofia Rei. I am currently a fan of all of these musicians and everyone can be traced back to Tom Waits like some musical version of six degrees of separation.

Sometimes it’s by directly talking to musicians, who recommend someone they think is great and whose work they want to bring to my attention. Other times, they recommend The Music and Myth to their peers, urging them to contact me and send me their work or they just come across The Music and Myth on their own and decide to write to me. That is by far my favorite way of getting to know new artists. I’ve not only broadened my musical horizons, I’ve also made many friends over the years.

Composer, saxophone player and vocalist Bernardo Monk was encouraged to contact me by none other than The Music and Myth’s Patron Saint, Sofia Rei. I am very glad he did, because I was immediately captivated by the temperament and sheer musicality of his work. When he sent me his 2014 release, A Toda Orquesta, I couldn’t wait to sit down and study it.

My excitement had a lot to do with the fact that I haven’t had the opportunity to grow very familiar with tango and I’m always looking forward to expanding my understanding of serious music. I knew that studying and reviewing Bernardo’s work would provide me with exactly the type of challenge I enjoy the most.

The record opens in a forceful way, with the high-powered, almost aggressive “Microcentro”. A haunting, suspense-building piano sequence that brings to mind film scores introduces the rest of the instruments, which proceed to erupt in a high-octane explosion of sound, before ceding the stage again to pianist Abel Rogantini for a splendid solo.

The key word here is narrative tension, as it seems to be throughout the record. A superb example of this is the dialogue between Pablo Motta’s double bass and the bandoneons courtesy of Daniel Ruggiero, Ramiro Boero and Nicolás Enrich.

As was the case with Tyshawn Sorey’s The Inner Spectrum of Variables, I once again find myself in one of the rare instances when I regret not having a musical education, which I am sure would have enhanced my understanding of this already promising record.

While the opening track follows a fairly traditional construction, slowing down at times to allow each of the main instruments (piano, soprano sax and double bass) to take center stage, it is saved from being predictable simply by the intensity of the band’s performance. In a profoundly captivating genre that commands the listener’s attention in a unique way, timing and tension are vital and “Microcentro” delivers in spades.

With its typical tango narrative and outstanding use of the string section, “A La Pista” contains all of the compositional elements that make this genre so captivating. At its best, tango is an intimate bond between music and listener, who become as intensely engaged as the partners absorbed by the homonymous dance.

The title track is a perfectly-paced piece full of warmth and mystery, where the composer demonstrates his sensibility for all instruments. The beautifully timed crescendos, divided by moments of almost precautionary stillness bring about a powerful finale, making this one of the record’s highlights.

It’s followed by another highlight, “Pentatonico”, where Bernardo gets to bring his instrument (this time an alto) front and center. A song that borrows from jazz perhaps more than any other, “Pentatonico” has a repetitive introduction that quickly unfolds into a splendid display of controlled chaos. Dominated by the presence of the saxophone, the rest of the instruments melt away into a false finish, with only the saxophone remaining unscathed. Left alone to cast off the silence, it softly calls out, summoning the other instruments, bringing the song back to life. It is one of the longest and most dynamically complex pieces on the record and my personal favorite.

Outstanding for its superb melody and fascinating interplay between piano and strings, “Cuando Volvamos a Vermos” provides a tender shift in tone and pace before “Zapadora” once again switches the tempo with its unrestrained energy and splendid solos.

Bernardo steps into the forefront again, this time as a vocalist on “Chau Bulin” and “Que Siga Lloviendo Asi”. His delivery is spot-on, especially on “Chau Bulin” – polished and balanced, evoking emotion without becoming melodramatic. It’s so good, in fact, that it left me wishing there had been more vocal tracks on the record and wondering why that wasn’t the case. Still, the order of the songs is well arranged, with the two vocal tracks positioned as a climactic moment of candid expression.

At once straightforward and complex, “Ecos de Vals” sets the album up for a powerful finale, which is delivered in the intense and haunting “Avalancha”. A veritable tour de force for all musicians (which includes a superb stretch of collective percussion) “Avalancha” is a powerful closing statement, fitting for an album that maintains the passion and rigor of tango while allowing the musicians to express themselves with jazz-like freedom.

A pleasure to listen to from the first note to the last!

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