Jazz Notes Intel: ‘West Side Story’ Reimagined With Bobby Sanabria’s Polyrhythmic Latin Twist; Clarinet-Guitar Duets With Anat Cohen and Marcello Gonçalves; Women Big Band Conductors
By Dan Ouellette, Senior Editor ZEALnyc, August 3, 2018
Last year marked the 60th birthday of composer/conductor Leonard Bernstein’s classic Broadway show West Side Story, famously made into a 10 Academy Award-winning movie version in 1961 starring among others the Puerto Rico-born actress Rita Moreno. This year marks the 100th anniversary of Maestro Bernstein’s birth. The tragic romantic storyline (based on Romeo and Juliet) that pitted two rival gangs in New York proved to be the first noteworthy representation of the Puerto Rican community in New York.
Percussionist, bandleader, Manhattan School of Music educator and Grammy nominee Bobby Sanabria knows that well. As a youngster, he and his parents and sister went to Loews Paradise in the Grand Concourse in The Bronx and watched in awe at the musical depicting inner city life. Born in “Da’ Bronx,” Sanabria didn’t know at the time that he was going to retell the story with a lively, respectful re-envisioning. He has created that career milestone with West Side Story Reimagined (Jazzheads Records), featuring his 21-piece Multiverse Big Band that’s fueled by Nuyorican cultural musical influences. Sanabria wasn’t born in Puerto Rico, but here in the Puerto Rican community. That, he says, allowed him to incorporate all the steams of the Nuyorican confluence of melodies, harmonies and rhythms from Afro-Cuban and Venezuelan music, as well as jazz, funk, r&b and hip-hop.
“Our big band is different,” he says. “It’s multiracial and multigenerational very much like how [trumpeter, bandleader] Don Ellis would have done it. He’s one of my heroes. So, we combine lyrical opera, balladry, jazz, Latin music, even vaudeville.”
While Sanabria and Multiverse have played a few shows (including three nights last November at Dizzy’s Club where the band recorded its live 2-CD album), their big coming-out presentation will be on Friday, August 10 at Lincoln Center Out of Doors free concert in Damrosch Park—in the area of the city where gangs once flourished and where Sanabria points out the scenes were shot for the film. (Sanabria notes that a collection of slides by Nuyorican photographers will also be projected behind the band.)
Sanabria praises Bernstein for creating “the most complex music on Broadway, upping the ante with songs in modern harmony as well as atonal music all developed with dancing and acting in mind.” He added that the Maestro was well-versed in Latin music, having attended shows at the Palladium Ballroom where Machito, Tito Puente and Tito Rodriguez wowed crowds with mambo and cha-cha. But the key musical moment comes at the beginning and works as anagram notes throughout the rest of the production: the tritone (based on the Hebrew shofar on the ram’s horn trumpet that signals war, foreboding, intensity). “To me, it’s an eerie sound almost like Twilight Zone music,” he says.”
Sanabria took on the ambitious project of Latinizing West Side Story when his student ensemble at Manhattan performed the mambo of “The Gym Scene” piece. That set him into motion to take on the whole score, sharing arrangement tasks with ex-students and colleagues. His first experiment performing it was too long and too exhausting on the horn players, so he shaved it down to a little over 79 minutes.
When the Multiverse recorded the album, the Maestro’s daughter, Jamie Bernstein, attended on the invite by the Manhattan Transfer’s Jane Siegel. “Jamie loved it,” Sanabria says, noting that Jamie recently published a memoir on her life with her dad, Famous Father Girl. “She liked how I was true to the spirit of the score and that her father would have appreciated how his music was reinvented.”
“Reimagined is a socio-political statement,” says Sanabria. “Just like the original West Side Story, it’s focusing on a simple thing: How do you deal with hate so that it doesn’t consume you.” He pauses, thinking of the current political situation in the U.S., and adds: “We fight with love, but sometimes hate wins over. We haven’t learned much. But at least we will show the love in our music with aché [energy].”
“Reimagined is my homage and gift to the Puerto Rican community in New York,” Sanabria says. “Puerto Ricans transformed New York—artistically, poetically, culturally, politically. We smoothed over the fighting and diversity so that other Latin American musicians could come here.”
Partial proceeds from the recording’s sales will go to the Jazz Foundation of America’s Puerto Rico Relief Fund. In September 2017, the U.S. island territory of Puerto Rico was double-punched by hurricanes, first Irma, which passed just north of the archipelago, and then Maria which made a direct hit. The Category 4 tropical cyclone was the worst catastrophe in its history. Nearly a year later, Puerto Rico continues to be in a disaster zone largely overlooked and forgotten by the U.S. national government. (FEMA has provided much smaller payouts in Puerto Rico compared with other disaster zones where the JFA has worked.)
The JFA, which supports musicians in need because of disasters ranging from Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans to the flooding in Baton Rouge, has been in Puerto Rico, in contact with more than 260 musicians in need because of destroyed shelters, lost instruments, lost opportunities to perform. “It has been nearly a year since Maria and our emergency outreach effort is done but the recovery is not over,” says JFA executive director Joe Petrucelli. “We are focusing on creating paid gigs for musicians over the next year, as the lack of work remains a dire concern. Bringing free concerts to the public in plazas, schools, public spaces and a variety of other venues, we are providing dignified employment for musicians and returning live music to its central place in communities in an effort to restore hope and opportunity.”
The JFA has provided $200,000 in relief effort, assisting 110 musicians and families, providing funds for basic necessities like food, water, and fuel; purchasing generators; replacing refrigerators and stoves; paying rents and mortgages; repairing and replacing instruments and studio equipment; and creating paid gigs.
“We need miraculous angels to help,” says founding director Wendy Oxenhorn. “There have been over 5,000 deaths, and it’s baffling to me that more support from our government for our U.S. citizens is not flowing.”
Sanabria came to know his JFA neighbors after he was asked to organize a benefit at Le Poisson Rouge for Puerto Rico after the hurricane. “I was called and in two days put together an all-star band with Multiverse at the core,” he says. “I selected pieces to play that were based on traditional Puerto Rican music. We sold out, and we raised close to $12,000 while LPR made money off the bar. So, then I thought, who should get this money, and was told about Wendy and the JFA.”
“Bobby is the first musician to ever do a fundraiser right after a disaster,” Oxenhorn says. “That was a huge job to gather up all the musicians to do this. We put the money to work.”
To make a donation to the Jazz Foundation of America’s Disaster Relief Fund click here.
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SCENE OF THE UNHEARD: ANAT COHEN AND MARCELLO GONÇALVES
Down a winding, terraced street tucked away from the bustle of the main piazza in Perugia, Umbrò, a hip multilevel, labyrinthian space, linked up with the Umbria Jazz Festival as a must-see venue this year. Its main attraction was a daily exuberant duo of top jazz clarinetist Anat Cohen and masterful seven-string Brazilian guitarist Marcello Gonçalves. Built into the wall of one of Perugia’s ancient buildings with domed ceilings, Umbrò is an upscale hidden wonder as you enter through its café, go downstairs to walk through its exclusive supermarket (pricy Umbrian specialties and produce and wine), wind through a restaurant past the large outside deck with a panoramic view, then go up a short stairwell past a bar and into the 100-seat performance space. On each of the seven nights that the remarkable pair played for free, all seats were taken and the aisles and walls were filled with additional listeners.
Much of their music came from last year’s Grammy-nominated album Outra Coisa where the duo collaborated on the arrangements Gonçalves developed from large-ensemble works composed in 1965 by the late Brazilian titan Moacir Santos. Their show captured an intimacy between the two as they complemented each other perfectly—Cohen with her warm, dark-toned, charcoal phrasing and Gonçalves with his wide orchestral range on the strings. They were expressive on a salsa-tinged piece which the audience applauded. They delivered hip-shaking numbers with a Middle Eastern flavor and with no solo excess played songs with harmonic coils, tempo shifts and abrupt endings. They swirled around each other with glee on some numbers that led to moments of reflection and ecstasy. Overall, Cohen and Gonçalves had a playful good time of singing and dancing and expressing freedom. The crowd demanded more.
The duo also performs at the Newport Jazz Festival on Saturday, August 4.
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THREE DOT LOUNGE . . .
Big bands are tricky….They feature full-sound excursions into the unknown buoyed or girded down by a wall of harmonic brass…But they don’t travel well (read: cost)…which is why a sampling of new big band recordings is a treat, especially when two of the albums prominently feature rising-star conductor Miho Hazama…She’s also a terrific arranger and producer, evidenced by her vibrant collaboration with the Metropole Orkest Big Band for The MONK: Live at Bimhuis on Sunnyside Records…Recorded in Amsterdam, it opens with a burst of horns and a monster swing through “Thelonious,” then eases into the balladic “Ruby, My Dear”…The rest of the way there’s no letup of tasty zest…Hazama’s busy…She also conducted composer Brian Krock’s big band avant/contemporary classical/pop-grooved/hard rock project Big Heart Machine…Hazama premieres the band’s self-titled recording at The Jazz Gallery on August 16…The album is released 8/24 on Outside In Music…Finally even if you can’t field a full-fledged big band, you can certainly sound like one….Case in point: the brilliant Jessica Lurie, the winds/multi-sax player and composer of genre-defiant gems on her sextet’s latest recording, Long Haul (Chant Records)…It’s spiked with energy, tumbles with klezmer, Latin and funk, flies with an improvisational spirit that’s full of life…Conversations in her tight ensemble abound among her and her bandmates, and there’s a teeming sensibility of adventure…I dare you to merely sample without plunging headlong into the fullness of Lurie’s originality as composer and improviser…definitely one of my favorites this year (even though officially it arrived in late 2017).
Cover: Bobby Sanabria and Multiverse Big Band; courtesy of artist.