by Ian Mann
September 19, 2017
Another enjoyable, entertaining and interesting performance. Let’s hope that the link between Abergavenny and Argentina continues to flourish.
Orquesta de Monte, Black Mountain Jazz, The Melville Centre, Abergavenny, 18/09/2017.
BMJ’s Argentinian connection continued with this whistle stop visit to Abergavenny from Orquesta de Monte, yet another project led by the tireless saxophonist and bandleader Gustavo Firmenich.
Firmenich first visited the town in September 2016 when Tango Jazz Quartet played at BMJ’s annual Wall2Wall Jazz Festival, the group’s appearance forming part of a massive European tour.
My review of their set can be found in my Festival coverage here;
Such was the success of that TJQ festival performance that Firmenich returned for a regular club date in July 2017 with the fourteen piece Sotavento Big Band, the concert again being part of a larger European tour. The big band presented a well balanced programme of American jazz and swing standards alongside items from the Argentinian tango and milonga repertoire. They were extremely well received by a large and appreciative audience and my coverage of that event can be read here;
Tonight’s event was arranged at short notice and without the usual publicity and like the Sotavento performance it was held on a Monday night rather then the normal Sunday. In the circumstances it was perhaps understandable that numbers were down on the big band gig but the evening was still hugely enjoyable with a fascinating variety of music being played. I, for one, was glad of the later than usual start (8.30), having been delayed by horrendous roadworks in Hereford.
Orquesta de Monte come from the town of San Miguel de Monte, near Buenos Aires and the ensemble is closely linked to the educational faculty there. Firmenich is an acclaimed musical educator and the Orquesta, like Sotavento, included a number of young, student musicians.
The version of the Orquesta that Firmenich brought to Abergavenny sat nicely in size between Tango Jazz Quartet and the Sotavento Big Band and was an eight piece ensemble with a good balance between experienced and younger players. The group was led and directed by Firmenich on tenor sax and clarinet and also featured TJQ drummer Alejandro Beelmann behind the kit and playing a key role as co-director. Firmenich and trombonist Matias Olivera proved to be the principal soloists although the group also included three alto saxophonists, Santiago Aicardi, Ulises Lencina and Ariana Villar. The latter, the group’s only female member, also added convincing vocals to selected numbers during the course of the two sets. The ensemble was completed by two young musicians, Enzo Villar on guitar and Mariano Sentin on five string electric bass.
The Orquesta placed a greater emphasis on Argentinian folk forms than Sotavento, although larger editions of the ensemble have played American big band music too. Of the Orquesta’s two CD releases the first concentrates on arrangements of US big band tunes, but the more recent offering, featuring all of tonight’s musicians among a slightly larger cast, presents an entirely South American repertoire with most of the pieces being played this evening.
By his own admission Firmenich isn’t the most fluent of English speakers, and my Spanish is non existent, so some tune titles have got lost - not that this in any way detracted from my enjoyment of the music. The lively opening piece was a samba, the Argentinian version sounding very different to the more familiar Brazilian equivalent. The octet made an impressively big sound with Olivera on fruity, rasping trombone the featured soloist. Beelmann and Firmenich were generous enough to provide me with a copy of the Orquesta’s latest album and on listening to this I suspect that the tune may have been “Juana Azurduy”, the second track on the recording.
I was on more familiar ground with “El Condor Pasa”, a folk tune from Northern Argentina (according to Firmenich, I’d always understood that it originated in Peru), the melody of which was famously adapted by Paul Simon as “If I Could” for the Simon & Garfunkel” album “Bridge Over Troubled Water”. The Orquesta treated the tune to a jazzier, slowed down arrangement with solos from Firmenich on tenor and Olivera on trombone, the melancholy of the latter’s playing reflecting the phrase “ he gives the world its saddest sound” in Simon’s lyrics. The Orquesta’s arrangements are written by arranger Eliel N. Garberi, who fulfils a similar function for the Sotavento Big Band.
Firmenich moved to clarinet for a song in the “chacarera” style, a fast energetic piece incorporating flamenco style flourishes and with the leader’s clarinet solo accompanied by the sound of the rapid hand claps, or ‘palmas’ of his fellow horn players. I’d hazard a guess that this was “Entre a mi pago sin golpear”, a tune from the ensemble’s second album.
Firmenich remained on clarinet and was the featured soloist on a ballad featuring the singing of Ariana Villar, who delivered the Spanish lyrics with conviction.
On the next piece Firmenich moved back to tenor to deliver what was arguably his best solo of the night as he alternated with Olivera’s trombone.
“Alfonsina y el mar”, which appears in vocal form on the album, saw guitarist Enzo Villar adding a subtle blues element to the sound of Argentinian samba as shared the solos with Firmenich’s tenor.
The leader then moved back on clarinet to solo on a joyously exuberant piece that evoked a real carnival spirit.
The energy levels were maintained as the first set finished in rousing fashion with Ariana Villar singing the Spanish lyric to “Chacarera del 55” backed by unison horns and the driving rhythms generated by Beelmann at the drum kit.
The start of the shorter second set found the ensemble concentrating on some of the American pieces in their repertoire commencing with “Basically Blues”, a tune from the Count Basie songbook, in an arrangement that featured solos from Olivera on trombone and Enzo Villar on guitar.
A splendidly swinging arrangement of Booker T’s “Green Onions” featured rousing trombone from Olivera and bluesy, r’n’b inflected tenor from Firmenich, their solos fuelled by Beelmann’s whip smart drumming as the alto players practised their dance steps.
Firmmenich’s tenor was again heard to good effect on a similarly swinging version of “Moanin’”, the hard bop classic penned by pianist Bobby Timmons and made famous by Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers.
The Orquesta then turned back to the music of their native Argentina for the folk tune “El Arriero” before Beelmann’s solo drum intro ushered in a piece featuring the complex rhythms of tango and flamenco with Olivera’s trombone solo accompanied by a second outbreak of ‘palmas’.
Ariana Villar took up the vocal mic to sing a piece that Firmenich described as a “love song”. I suspect that this may have been “Merceditas”, a song written by Sixto Rios that appears on the Orquesta’s latest album.
Ariana continued on vocals for the closing “Duerme Negrito”, a popular tune from Central America that combined the singer’s Spanish lyrics with a sound approximating genuine big band swing and with uplifting solos from tenor sax and trombone.
This was particularly well received by the Abergavenny audience and the ensemble returned for a deserved encore in which they explored yet another musical genre with a splendidly funky version of Herbie Hancock’s 70s fusion classic “Chameleon” with guitarist Enzo Villar the featured soloist.
Orquesta de Monte are on a typically demanding tour schedule. The night before they’d performed at the Argentinian Embassy in London. After the Abergavenny show they were driving to Paris to perform at the Embassy there before moving on to Belgium. It was gratifying to know that Gustavo Firmenich thinks so highly of Abergavenny that he decided to squeeze in an extra gig, a definite bonus for music lovers in this part of South Wales.
Substantially different to both TJQ and Sotavento this was another enjoyable, entertaining and interesting performance from Firmenich and his colleagues. The exotic sounds of South America, allied to American jazz, continue to hold a strange fascination for European listeners such as myself. This is music that intrigues as well as entertains, a window into another culture refracted through the prism of something more readily familiar.
The standard of the playing was excellent throughout with the versatile Firmenich, back on tenor after playing alto with Sotavento, impressing on both saxophone and clarinet. He was matched by the excellent Olivera while Enzo Villar weighed in with a number of pleasing solo contributions. I also found Ariana Villar’s vocal performances thoroughly convincing and surprisingly enjoyable. And one shouldn’t forget the role of and co-director Beelmann who helped to hold the whole thing together from behind the drums.
My thanks to Gustavo and Alejandro for speaking with me after the gig. They are genuinely lovely and generous people. Let’s hope that the link between Abergavenny and Argentina continues to flourish and that Firmenich, Beelmann and their colleagues will return to South Wales, maybe with yet another new project, in the near future.
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