Music Reviews
9:02 am
Mon November 14, 2011

Two South-American Jazz Fusions (No, Not That Kind)

Jazz has always drawn on the syncopated rhythms of Cuban music, and occasionally draws on other new world strains, like Brazilian bossa nova in the 1960s. But that interaction between North and South is ongoing.

The great tango composer Astor Piazzolla was born in Argentina, but was partly raised in New York, a city to which he returned in the late '50s. There, he recorded Take Me Dancing with some New York jazz players, and the result was a dud of an album mixing tango, jazz and bongos. It's not so awful, but apparently it haunted Piazzolla. Anyway, Argentine-born New Yorker Pablo Aslan, who often blends jazz and tango, has now remade most of that 1959 album, getting it the right the second time. His Argentine quintet recorded in Buenos Aires and includes Astor Piazzolla's grandson, drummer "Pipi" Piazzolla.

Piazzolla's music breathes more easily here than on his own 1959 LP. Mixing jazz and the tango has always been tricky: Both traditions owe a lot to Cuban rhythms like the habañera, but they accent and exploit those rhythms differently. Even so, Aslan's Argentine crew has worked in both worlds, and can swim between. Aslan's jazz tangos carry some of the elegance of a bygone era, which is one way to evoke the melancholy that's part of the tango esthetic.

For a woolier and more contemporary jazz-South American fusion, there's São Paulo Underground. It's spearheaded by cornetist Rob Mazurek, a Chicagoan who's lived in Brazil, where he teamed up with some locals. Earlier, Mazurek worked with the Chicago Underground, a collective known for its electronic overlays, infectious beats and bugle-call melodies. São Paulo Underground doubles down on all that stuff.

São Paulo Underground's new album is titled Três Cabeças Loucuras — three crazy heads? Never mind there are four of them, including Mauricio Takara on Brazilian four-string guitar — and that's not counting the odd Chicago helper like vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz. The music has the heavy feel of street culture, evoked by parade rhythms, extreme distortion like a boombox with blown speakers playing a stepped-on cassette, and the collisions of cometing sounds in one open space.

Três Cabeças Loucuras' heady percussion is a mix of drums and electronics, using samples of what sound like Trinidadian steel drums and Indonesian gamelans. I can't think of another album that does quite what São Paulo Underground's latest does. It's very melodic and full of rude noise, often at the same time. The music can be as dense as a Sun Ra freakout and sunny as a Pat Metheny tune. Some folks don't mind noise so much when there's a good beat and melody to go with it. This record's got it all, all at once.

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Transcript

TERRY GROSS, host: Jazz has always drawn on the syncopated rhythms of Cuban music and occasionally draws on other new world strains like Brazilian bossa nova in the 1960s. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says that interaction between north and south is ongoing. He looks at two new albums that cross-pollinate jazz with Argentine and Brazilian music.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KEVIN WHITEHEAD: Trumpeter Gustavo Bergalli with bassist Pablo Aslan's quintet, from their CD "Piazzolla in Brooklyn." The great tango composer Astor Piazzolla was born in Argentina, but partly raised in New York, a city he returned to in the late '50s. There, he recorded "Take Me Dancing" with some New York jazz players, a dud of an album mixing tango, jazz and bongos. It's not so awful, but apparently it haunted Piazzolla.

Anyway, Argentine-born New Yorker Pablo Aslan, who often blends jazz and tango, has now remade most of that 1959 album, getting it the right the second time. His Argentine quintet, recorded in Buenos Aires, includes Astor's grandson, drummer Pipi Piazzolla.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COUNTERPOINT")

WHITEHEAD: Astor Piazzolla's "Counterpoint," revived by Pablo Aslan's quintet. Piazzolla's music breathes more easily here than on his own 1959 LP. Mixing jazz and the tango has always been a little tricky: Both traditions owe a lot to Cuban rhythms like the habanera, but they accent and exploit those rhythms differently. Even so, Aslan's Argentine crew have worked in both worlds, and can swim between. This is their version of Piazzolla's version of the jazz standard, "Laura."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LAURA")

WHITEHEAD: Nicolas Enrich on bandoneon, the tango accordion. Pablo Aslan's jazz tangos carry some of the elegance of a bygone era, which is one way to evoke the melancholy that's part of the tango aesthetic. For a woollier and more contemporary jazz-South American fusion, there's Sao Paulo Underground. It's spearheaded by cornetist Rob Mazurek, a Chicagoan who's lived in Brazil, where he teamed up with some locals.

Earlier, Mazurek worked with the Chicago Underground, a collective known for its electronic overlays, infectious beats and bugle-call melodies. Sao Paulo Underground doubles down on all that stuff.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WHITEHEAD: Sao Paulo Underground from their new CD, "Tres Cabecas Loucuras" - "Three crazy heads"? Never mind there are four of them, including Mauricio Takara on Brazilian four-string guitar - and that's not counting the odd Chicago helper like vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz. The music has the heavy feel of street culture, evoked by parade rhythms, extreme distortion like a boom box with blown speakers playing a stepped-on cassette, and the collisions of competing sounds in one open space.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WHITEHEAD: That heady percussion is a mix of drums and electronica, using samples of what sound like Trinidadian steel drums and Indonesian gamelans. I can't think of another album that does quite what Sao Paulo Underground's latest does. It's very melodic and full of rude noise, often at the same time. The music can be as dense as a Sun Ra freakout and sunny as a Pat Metheny tune. Some folks don't mind noise so much when there's a good beat and melody to go with it. This record's got it all, all at once.

GROSS: Kevin Whitehead is a jazz columnist for emusic.com and author of the book, "Why Jazz?" He reviewed new CDs by Pablo Aslan Quintet and the Sao Paulo Underground.

I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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