Nachito Herrera: Bembé en Mi Casa

Robert R. Calder

Herrera played Rachmaninov in his native Cuba, and these days he plays virtuoso Cuban in his adopted Minnesota. Omnivorous, over-versatile, on occasion overbearing -- with plush booklet on the overdone side.

Nachito Herrera

Bembé en Mi Casa

Label: FS
US Release Date: 2005-09-06
UK Release Date: Available as import
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This almost qualifies as what has sometimes been called a showband recording, but without the usual extent of informality. It's the product of a band with multiple capacities, and it represents a range of them. There's some jazz, but only in some performances, and as a minor aspect of only a few others. There's a range of Cuban music, like you might find on a CD by Ruben Gonzales, one of Nachito Herrera's teachers; except that Herrera is energetic and outgoing and technically flawless, whereas Gonzales was wistful and gentle and informal. (Persuaded out of retirement, he was arthritic, but the fingers loosened and he kept in practice and performing even when, near the end, one heard tales of his needing to be carried to the piano because of a compulsion to keep on playing!).

Herrera seems physically stocky and very strong -- there's an almost comical photo of him in a patterned suit which looks like pajamas -- and outgoing. The paperwork reports that as a startlingly young man Herrera performed as soloist in a performance of Rachmaninov's "Piano Concerto No. 9". That statement might horrify the great Austrian pianist Alfred Brendel, who has at times said things which suggest he thinks three is already too many. An earlier Cuban exile, Jorge Bolet, who came to North America before there were political problems between Cuba and USA, fell in with Rachmaninov's associates when Rachmaninov was still around as an exile from other political problems. Bolet continued to play Rachmaninov as well as Liszt, and was a major virtuoso for some decades before he became widely known as such. Herrera, at any rate, seems to take Cuban music quite as seriously as Bolet did Liszt.

You can hear something of that, and the chops, on the opening track here, "Song in F" (named after Anton Rubinstein's "Melody in F"?). The booklet is so sumptuous with background photos presumably of rural Cuba and Havana, as well as cartoons and little and big photos inset. I shudder thinking how much it might have cost to print! The actual CD's label is best seen through sunglasses -- a polychrome peak of the parody which the booklet approximates.

The booklet touches full-blown parody with mistranslation of a Spanish phrase which goes into English as fusion of jazz with Cuban music. Some silly person has muddled it into "jazz fusion"! Which is one thing the gargantuan leader hasn't tried to incorporate in this lot. It feels like he's tried too much already.

Whether anybody other than the tenorist Nardy Catellini engages in jazz improvisation here remains uncertain. I wonder where from he originally hies? He was, it seems, brought from Spain to play in Herrera's band, and has a contemporary, tonally rough but harmonically post-Coltrane et cetera manner on his horn. The opening of the opening track is pseudo avant-garde, but the pianist takes command, with a couple of percussionists and both a bass guitarist and a performer on the upright acoustic instrument. In his solo jazz, he alternates with characteristic Latin American multinote piano playing, showy and decorative but essaying rhythmic complexity. It's not clear whether he's improvising or decorating, adding collage licks imitated from Mcoytynerians. There's so much going on behind Castellini during his tenor solo that he has trouble maintaining an improvised jazz line, and sometimes veers well into rather melodic color on top of the percussion. The piano behind him is complex.

"Nacho's Pilón" reinforces an almost overbearing impression. The "genre" is listed as pilón, Jésus Díaz sings with backing voices, the dance speed is something like break-sweat after the first minute. Oh, for a relenting lilt in the sound! It ain't there in Castellini's "Big News", another "fusion of jazz with . . .", but this time it's "música Afro-Cubana" rather being the "Jazz latino" of the opening title. After the frenetic opening there is some relaxation, as the restless percussion machinery eventually catches up with a good tenor solo. Herrera solos, beginning during another pause for breath, and if he does start to lay it on heavier at least it's him, not the battery. He does play a quiet harmonized figure during the peaceful opening to Raúl Pineda's drum solo, and as that picks up a bit there isn't quite the same restlessness. Maybe they're getting tired. Hopefully they're really getting relaxed?

Well, "Nostalgia" (genre: Contemporary Ballad) does edge into the sentimental, really for the want of rhythm within the playing of the melody. Herrera's solo improves things before picking up some clichés. It recovers and sets things up for a delicate soprano saxophone entry. It turns into something decent, but as in many pop-jazz combinations recorded over the past eighty years, there's no settling into a properly-at-ease jazz performance. The title track has vocals, some solo electric bass from Víctor Rodríguez, and a nice quiet passage of percussion. The band work is a bit too brisk and brassy, Herrera plays relatively quietly in a slightly more aggressive and virtuoso version of Rubén Gonzales. Adalberto Lara's trumpet and the saxophonist come in and come on strong.

At least "Capullito de Alelí" is a piano solo (genre: Guaracha) with a nice enough intro, and then the dance rhythm with thumping left hand after a gospelly righteous manner. The affinities between Rock, Church, Rock and this are strong. It's nice to have this jolly forty-second cousin of Abdullah Ibrahim on solo piano, with its pianissimo passages, for a breather. "Llegon los Millonarios" (genre: Danzón) has a string section from the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Sherry Hanson, and one phrase lifted possibly from Beethoven, as well as a direct quote of whole choruses from a pop-song which many will recognize while sharing my failure to know its name. A bit more of the piano clowning and I'm thinking Liberacito -- which older readers might rightly surmise as an allusion to a man in spangled suit with chandelier, multiple references to a brother George and an apparent fondness for his mother, Mrs. Liberace.

The first word in the title of "Guaguanco Para Ochún" is its genre. Jesús Díaz sings well over percussion, impressive bass guitar and intriguing dark and sparing harmonies from the pianist. The horns on entry sound as if they have been tiring (phew!) or relaxing while the pianist has been playing by himself or with the Philharmonic fiddlers. Adalberto Lara manages a nice trumpet solo, with some high note twitter, not a long one. "Potpouri de La Cha-Cha" (no prizes for guessing the genre) is too energetic to be proper salon muzak.

The bolero which follows seems to have had some sort of electronic enhancement or overdubbing in order to add trumpets and reeds to the ballroom dancing orchestra in front of which, not without chandelier, is Signor Semprini (or some other conservatory graduate who choose to play the tamer vaudevilles -- no Bolet, anyway). "Ritmo Caliente" is denied membership of any specific genre. Edmundo Ros, who started in a London conservatory before Nachito Herrera was born, and a few years back as a huge and very dark ancient recorded again to meet a new demand, stood in front of many performance of this sort. I've heard some of his records. The occasional aunt liked that sort of thing. I miss the swish of the maracas, which he actually deployed to some musical purpose beyond their visual function.

Produced from St. Paul, this is obviously something of a Minnesota project, and I hope it's not taken excessively seriously there. Relax! Now where did I leave that Ruben Gonzalez CD my delightful mujer gave me as a present. I want something wistful. Cha-cha-cha?


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