by Ian Mann
April 13, 2021
Vibrant, highly rhythmic & thoroughly enjoyable. A vivacious, highly skilled performance of classic Cuban material from a band clearly relishing the opportunity to perform before any kind of audience
Ocaso Latin Quartet, Livestream from Brecon Jazz Club, The Muse Arts Centre, Brecon, 10/04/2021.
Inês Castillo – lead vocals, maracas, Pedro Asencio – piano, backing vocals, Matheus Prado – double bass, backing vocals, Mark O’Connor – percussion
Brecon Jazz Club’s livestream series from their regular HQ, The Muse Arts Centre, continued with this vibrant and thoroughly enjoyable performance from Ocaso, a quartet based in Cardiff that specialises in the performance of various types of Latin music.
Despite the international line up the members of Ocaso (the band name means “sunset” in Portuguese) all have strong links to the city of Cardiff and specifically the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama.
The group’s Peruvian born pianist Pedro Asencio lived in Portugal before graduating from the RWCMD and settling in Cardiff. Vocalist Castillo, originally from Portugal, is also a graduate of the College’s celebrated Jazz Course. Born in Brazil the slightly older Prado recently achieved his Masters degree from the same institution, while O’Connor, a long term stalwart of the Welsh jazz scene, is a tutor at the RWCMD.
All four musicians are busy and popular presences on the South Wales jazz scene and all are involved with numerous other projects.
In 2017 Ocaso visited The Muse to perform an evening of Brazilian music at one of Brecon Jazz Club’s regular monthly club nights. They also appeared at the 2019 Brecon Jazz Festival
For tonight’s show, which saw them billed as the Ocaso Latin Quartet, they decided to focus on the music of Cuba, with the multilingual Castillo singing in Spanish rather than her native Portuguese.
Tonight’s event was filmed and recorded by Ratio Studios of Merthyr Tydfil, one of the regular media partners of Brecon Jazz, and the quality of both the sound and the visuals was characteristically excellent throughout. The 2017 show had been marred by poor sound quality in the first half, so tonight’s high quality audio mix was particularly welcome.
The evening got off to a lively and vibrant start with “Son De La Loma” (I don’t speak Spanish so I’ll do the best that I can when it comes to song titles), with Castillo singing with great confidence and also providing rhythmic accompaniment via a pair of maracas. She played these throughout the evening and they proved to be a vital component of this highly rhythmic music, which saw the sound of the maracas interacting with the rhythms of O’Connor’s bongos, Prado’s double bass and Asencio’s left hand. Forget the ‘chick with tambourine’ clichés of rock, Castillo’s percussive contribution really was an integral part of the group sound and the skill required to sing so confidently and to keep the beat shouldn’t be underestimated, especially as this was the band’s first gig in over a year. Asencio also featured strongly as he soloed on his Roland keyboard, adopting an acoustic piano setting. He proved to to be a fluent soloist and a highly skilled accompanist with a thorough knowledge of Latin music styles.
“Chan Chan” was the first of two pieces sourced from the landmark album “Buena Vista Social Club”. Digging out my copy for research purposes it’s difficult to believe that this much loved recording was released as far back as 1997. It seems like only yesterday since it first came out. However, I digress.
Ocaso’s version was introduced by Asencio at the piano and featured the beautiful, cello like sounds of Prado’s bowed double bass. Written by guitarist Compay Segundo this ‘son’ began slowly, almost like a ballad, with Castillo delivering the Spanish lyric and Asencio providing a lilting, lyrical piano solo. The second half of the performance saw the quartet accelerating the tune and revisiting the energy and rhythmic vibrancy of the opening piece.
The jazz and Latin standard “Mambo Inn” was performed as an instrumental, thereby allowing Asencio to further demonstrate his mastery of a variety of Latin piano styles with a dazzling solo, rich in terms of both rhythmic and melodic invention. Similar levels of virtuosity were exhibited by Prado with a highly dexterous double bass solo, concentrated around the bridge. It was in moments such as this that the advantages of the livestream format really came into focus, with close ups of the remarkable finger work of both musicians giving the viewer the opportunity to truly appreciate the enormous technical ability of both players.
Castillo then returned to sing the ballad “Dos Gardenias”, another song from the Buena Vista album, with Asencio and Prado again impressing as soloists.
The first set ended as it began with an explosion of rhythm, with another sparkling piano solo from Asencio, and with Prado’s accomplished backing vocals coming increasingly to the fore.
This was a hugely exciting and enjoyable first set that demonstrated Ocaso’s mastery of various Afro-Cuban song forms, an impressive feat given that they have previously exhibited an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of Brazilian idioms. Castillo is equally confident in Spanish and Portuguese and her colleagues are similarly fluent in the equivalent instrumental languages.
The interval featured a short address from Guillaume Descottes, the head of Vialma, the second of Brecon Jazz’s media partners. The French streaming company specialises in classical and jazz performances and hosted the 2020 ‘Virtual’ Brecon Jazz Festival. During the course of his brief message Descottes publicised the services of his organisation, as well as singing the praises of the jazz idiom itself, with its spirit of inclusiveness and diversity and its commitment to the art of improvisation.
The second set began with the Cuban song “Lagrimas Negras” (or “Black Tears”), which began as a mid tempo ballad with Asencio’s piano solo providing the link into the second half of the song, as the musicians again increased the pace and energy.
Next we heard “Molieando Café” (literally “Grinding Coffee”) a Venezuelan song that has become something of a Latin standard. The lyrics are written from the point of view of a young man who is forced to work in the coffee fields instead of enjoying his love life. This spirited performance included a lively series of exchanges between Asencio on piano and O’Connor at the bongos. Meanwhile Prado provided an alternative vocal line to Castillo’s lead vocal, his semi-sung, semi-spoken contribution almost a form of Latin rap.
Approximately translating as “I Don’t Bother With It” the Cuban song “No Me Molesto” saw Ocaso giving another lively performance, with a vocal chant referencing the cha cha and a lyric that seemed to express the values of a care free lifestyle.
Castillo described the next item, with a title translating as “The Volcano”, as representing “an explosion of sound”. It was certainly another hugely exciting performance, highly rhythmic and with another series of dazzling exchanges between pianist Asencio and percussionist O’Connor.
With a reputation as the leading jazz drummer in South Wales (as evidenced by his excellent performance behind the kit on the recent Cwmwl Tystion / Witness album) O’Connor was here specialising on bongos. The rhythmic variety that he conjured from this superficially simple instrument was both surprising and impressive throughout. Close your eyes and you could easily imagine that this was a musician hailing from Havana rather than from Hengoed.
Ocaso concluded their second set with “El Duro Del Guaguanco”, another high energy and vividly rhythmic offering with Castillo’s spirited vocals augmented by Asencio’s piano solo and a second percussion feature for O’Connor.
I thoroughly enjoyed this vivacious and highly skilled performance of classic Cuban (mainly) material, with singer Castillo and her three bandmates all in terrific form and . I can’t emphasise enough just how vibrant, colourful and rhythmic the performances were, even in the absence of a conventional drum kit. The performers were well served by the quality of the sound and visuals and overall Brecon Jazz Club could be well satisfied with this production.
It remains unclear exactly when live music in the presence of a paying audience will return to Brecon. In the meantime these high quality livestream performances continue to provide a highly satisfactory substitute.
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