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La Malbec Orquesta with guest Xenia Porteous

La Malbec Orquesta with guest Xenia Porteous, Brecon Jazz Club, The Muse Arts Centre, Brecon, 26/09/2023.

by Ian Mann

September 27, 2023


Ian Mann enjoys this mix of Argentinian bolero and American jazz from the Buenos Aires based ten piece La Malbec Orquesta and their Cardiff based guest, violinist Xenia Porteous.

La Malbec Orquesta with guest Xenia Porteous, Brecon Jazz Club, The Muse Arts Centre, Brecon, 26/09/2023

Gustavo Firmenich – alto sax, clarinet

Marcelo Diven - vocals

Andres Veltri, Daniel Grant, Miguel Bensadon – tenor sax

Romina Bochicchio – alto sax

Lucia Deluca - clarinet

Andres Zetko – electric bass

Valentin Rodriguez – electric guitar

Laureano Daloia – drums

With guest;

Xenia Porteous – violin

From Buenos Aires, Argentina the ten (sometimes eleven) piece La Malbec Orquesta is the latest project from the remarkable saxophonist, clarinettist, composer, bandleader and educator Gustavo Firmenich.

Firmenich is no stranger to Welsh jazz audiences after making many appearances at Brecon Jazz Club and Festival and at Black Mountain Jazz Club and Festival in nearby Abergavenny.

I first saw Firmenich play in 2016 when he brought the group Tango Jazz Quartet to Abergavenny to appear at that year’s Wall2Wall Jazz Festival. The date was part of an extensive European tour. The performance was very well received and a strong relationship was forged with the band and with leader Firmenich in particular.
Review as part of my Festival coverage here;

In 2017 Firmenich returned to Abergavenny leading the fourteen piece Sotavento Big Band, who were also on tour in Europe. This was a very different line up and was fronted by Firmenich’s wife, singer Patricia Leguizamon. However the music still featured a blend of Argentinian tango and American jazz and once again the performance was very well received by the Abergavenny public.
Review here;

Firmenich is an acclaimed jazz educator and also in 2017 he visited with the student band Orquesta de Monte, an ensemble closely linked with the educational establishment in the town of San Miguel de Monte, near Buenos Aires. This unit put a greater emphasis on Argentinian folk forms, although an American jazz element was also heard thanks to the inclusion of tunes associated with Art Blakey and Herbie Hancock. Review here;

TJQ then returned in 2019 to play at that year’s Wall2Wall and in 2020 were commissioned by BMJ to produce the excellent ninety minute film “Tango Meets Jazz” for the Wall2Wall Virtual Jazz Festival. The film was much more than just a streamed live performance and was a highly informative documentary that explored the historic links between Argentinian tango and American jazz and examined TJQ’s role in bringing its unique blend of the two musics to an international audience.  As such it very much exceeded expectations and is reviewed here;

TJQ made their third trip to Abergavenny in August 2022, featuring a brand new line up with Firmenich the only remaining member from their previous visits.  They also ran a Tango Workshop before the event and were joined on one number by some of their ‘students’. My review of this concert, from which much of the above biographical detail has been sourced, can be found here;

Tango Jazz Quartet were due to appear at the 2020 Brecon Jazz Festival but instead contributed to that year’s ‘Virtual’ Brecon Jazz Festival with a performance streamed from their studio in Buenos Aires. My account of this can be found as part of my Festival coverage here;

TJQ were particularly active during lockdown, producing a whole series of videos and also collaborating ‘virtually’ with musicians from all over the globe, among them Cardiff based violinist Xenia Porteous.

Porteous is perhaps best known as a member of the South Wales based gypsy jazz quartet Hot Club Gallois, but she is also a particularly willing musical collaborator who has been involved in one off Brecon Jazz Festival alliances with guitarists Trefor Owen and Andy Hulme, jazz French horn player Rod Paton, Czech saxophonist Pavel Zlamal and the accordion / violin duo Faith i Branko.

At the 2021 Brecon Jazz Festival she performed as part of the Swing Strings Trio alongside harpist Ben Creighton Griffiths and double bassist Ashley John Long. My review of the excellent performance by Swing Strings Trio can be found as part of my Festival coverage here;
La Malbec Orquesta appear to be another act to have developed out of Firmenich’s educational activities. They describe their repertoire as being “composed of Argentine songs and boleros adapted to the jazz orchestra format”.

It is typical for Firmenich led groups to spend most of our summer in Europe, touring exhaustively. La Malbec was first formed six years ago and made its first European tour in 2022. The Orquesta is currently coming towards the end of another marathon tour that will see them play sixty five dates in seventy days and visiting France, Belgium and Switzerland as well as England and Wales. British dates have included shows in Newcastle, London, Bath and Cardiff in addition to Brecon. This evening’s show was kindly supported by Arts Council Wales’ ‘Noson Allan’ or ‘Night Out’ scheme, with BJC’s Lynne Gornall acknowledging the work of the scheme’s Peter Gregory.

La Malbec is different to Firmenich’s other projects in that it is fronted by a full time male vocalist,  Marcelo Diven. His singing, with the lyrics delivered exclusively in Spanish,  was featured on the majority of the songs. Diven’s singing was powerful and confident, occupying a role similar to that of a big band vocalist but also linked to the Argentinian folk and tango traditions. He proved to be a charismatic front man whose performance was greatly appreciated by the Brecon audience.

Tonight specialising on alto sax and clarinet (he also plays tenor sax in TJQ and other projects) Firmenich was the main instrumental soloist, featuring on almost every number, but the other members of the band were all to enjoy at least one moment in the spotlight.

Of course all the tune titles were in Spanish, and even though Gustavo was kind enough to supply with the names of the personnel (I think I’ve got those right) and to write me out a set list I’m still struggling to decipher some of the titles.

Most of the pieces were written in the bolero form and featured Diven’s confident vocals. Meanwhile Firmenich gravitated between alto sax and clarinet, soloing fluently on both as required.

Tango rhythms were also incorporated into some of the songs, while others adopted more of an orthodox American swing jazz feel. Other musicians to feature as soloists included tenor saxophonists Andre Veltri and Daniel Grant and clarinettist Lucia Deluca. The rhythm section of bassist Andres Zetko and drummer Laureano Daloia also impressed and played a prominent part in many of the arrangements. One particularly brilliant moment saw Firmenich soloing on clarinet, backed only by Daloia’s beguiling drum rhythms. Totally captivating and quite stunning.

Audience participation was encouraged with Diven sometimes urging us to clap along, often to some pretty complex rhythms.

Occasionally there would be a piece familiar to the ears of European jazz listeners, such as “Besame Mucho”, played in the bolero style and passionately delivered by Diven.

An instrumental with a title translating as “The Opportunity” offered just that to the young guitar soloist Valentin Rodriguez and to the two tenors Grant and Veltri.

Diven then returned for the last number of the first set, a song with something of a conventional swing feel that also incorporated features for Firmenich on alto sax and Daloia at the drums.

La Malbec’s blend of American jazz and Argentinian bolero was certainly well received by a Brecon crowd who responded well to the warmth of the band’s performance and the high quality of the singing and playing, with leader Firmenich the star instrumental soloist. He’s one of those musicians whose playing seems to get better every time I see him perform.

Set two began with another item familiar to European jazz audiences, an arrangement of the Antonio Carlos Jobim song commonly known as “Sway”, with Diven delivering the lyrics in Spanish as the band played a bolero style arrangement.

Firmenich then called Xenia Porteous to the stage to join the band for a couple of instrumental numbers. The first of these was Firmenich’s own composition “Mabricia”, a delightful dedication to his wife and daughter. This was written in the style of a Cuban bolero and featured solos from Porteous on violin and Firmenich on alto sax.
The second was a beautiful rendition of the bittersweet song “Tú me acostumbraste” with Porteous giving a particularly poignant and haunting performance on violin. I’ve always been a huge admirer of her playing and the way in which her flawless, classically honed technique allows her to adapt almost instantly to any given musical situation. Porteous lived in Buenos Aires for four months and her love of South American music, and of tango in particular, makes her an ideal collaborator for Firmenich and the pair clearly have a great deal of mutual respect for each other. Porteous’ contribution may have been all to brief but she got a terrific reception from the supportive Brecon audience.

Diven returned to the stage for the next bolero, the instrumental solos coming from Grant (I think) on tenor and Firmenich on clarinet.

Particularly popular in Buenos Aires a song with a title translating as “Breaking My Heart” featured Diven’s passionate vocals but also included a string of instrumental solos, these giving us the opportunity to hear from some of the musicians who hitherto hadn’t featured individually. These included alto saxophonist Romina Bochicchio and tenor man Miguel Bensadon, with solos also coming from Veltri and Grant, also on tenors, plus Firmenich on alto.

The infectious “Algo Contigo” closed the set and saw several audience members getting to their feet to dance as the rest joyously clapped along to the rhythms, suitably encouraged by Diven, Firmenich and the rest of the band. Some of the musicians even came down off the stage to join in with the dancers. It all made for a very exciting ending and helped to make this one of the great Brecon Jazz Club nights at The Muse.

My thanks to Gustavo Firmenich for speaking with me before and after the show and for providing vital information. Also to Xenia Porteous for a lovely chat at half time and again afterwards. She’s currently on the look out for more gigs for Hot Club Gallois so make sure you go to see them if they play anywhere near you.

Meanwhile La Malbec Orquesta will round off their tour in Switzerland and France before returning home to Buenos Aires in early October. Safe travels, and thanks again for a hugely enjoyable evening.


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