by Ian Mann
July 11, 2017
A highly enjoyable evening of music with the band combining elements of their native tango with the music of the American jazz tradition and feeding off the energy of a very supportive crowd.
Sotavento Big Band, Black Mountain Jazz, Melville Centre, Abergavenny, 10/07/2017.
One of the most popular acts at the 2016 Wall2Wall Jazz Festival, curated by Black Mountain Jazz, was the Tango Jazz Quartet from Buenos Aires, Argentina, who visited Abergavenny as part of an extensive European tour.
TJQ were led by saxophonist/clarinettist Gustavo Firmenich who now brought another of his projects, the Sotavento Big Band, to BMJ, the date once again part of a mammoth European tour. A punishing schedule saw the members of Sotavento driving down to Abergavenny from Newcastle before heading off to catch a ferry out from Dover and travelling on to Switzerland to perform at the prestigious Montreux Jazz Festival.
BMJ were fortunate that Sotavento had managed to sandwich this sole Welsh date into their tour and promoter Mike Skilton was rewarded with a bumper crowd on a Monday evening - club nights are usually on Sundays. This, I suspect, was a tribute to the quality of the performance by TJQ at Wall2Wall allied to the enduring appeal of the big band format for jazz audiences. It will be interesting to see if the Monday night experiment will be repeated during BMJ’s 2017/18 season.
I, for one, was very much intrigued by the prospect of seeing a scaled up version of TJQ. However this was to be a very different band with Firmenich the only member of TJQ to be part of the Sotavento line-up. There are however many musical similarities with both bands combining elements of their native tango with the music of the American jazz tradition. During the course of two well balanced and absorbing sets Sotavento performed a mix of American jazz standards and big band classics alongside pieces from the Argentinian tango and milonga repertoire. The performance also featured both instrumental and vocal music with Firmenich’s wife, Patricia Leguizamon, fulfilling the role of singer.
The Sotavento Big Band began 2004 as a student ensemble and has since evolved to become one of the most in demand jazz ensembles on the Buenos Aires jazz scene. The band’s music has been described as “combining the melodies and rhythms of tango with the harmonies and improvisation of jazz”. The instrumental configuration is unconventional with the usual trumpets and trombones of the typical American big band replaced by saxophones and clarinets to give a warmer, less strident sound. The band’s arrangements are therefore specifically written for it by one Eliel Garberi. I’m not sure if the saxophone ensemble plus rhythm section is a particularly Argentinian thing but the only British counterparts that spring to mind are Derek Nash’s Sax Appeal and Andy Scott’s Group S.
As part of TJQ Firmenich had performed on tenor sax and clarinet but tonight he appeared exclusively on alto as part of a fourteen piece ensemble that included no less than six tenor saxophones!
For the record the Sotavento Big Band lined up as follows;
Gustavo Firmenich – alto saxophone, director
Sergio Risoli, Fernando Castel, Duilio Giri, Miguel Bensadon, Horacio Baldassarre, Andres Veltri – tenor saxophones
Sergio Cisneros, Florencia Crnko – clarinets
Enrique Gallo Calderon – keyboard
Ezequiel Angeleri – guitar
Cristian Cor – electric bass
Fernando Crespo- drums
Patricia Leguizamon – vocals
With their band uniform of bright blue T shirts and matching music stands Sotavento hit the floor running with a swinging instrumental version of Count Basie’s “Splanky”, the tune propelled by the highly cohesive rhythm section. It took a short while to get used to the absence of brass but most listeners quickly acclimatised themselves to the SBB sound. Guitarist Angeleri led off the solos with a lithe and agile slice of decidedly superior fret work and he was followed by leader Firmenich on alto and Calderon on piano.
Moe Koffman’s “Swinging Shepherd Blues” maintained the energy levels and introduced us to another batch of soloists including the clarinettists Crnko and Cisneros whose contributions bookended solos from Calderon and one of the massed ranks of tenor players – we still hadn’t been introduced to the band members yet, so I can’t be too specific here.
Leguizamon joined the band for “S’Wonderful”, singing the lyric in English but with a distinctive Spanish inflection to her voice, which was initially a little too low in the mix. She shared the limelight here with Veltri, the hat wearing “Godfather”, who was to emerge as the band’s main tenor soloist.
The bluesy sounds of the massed tenor combined effectively with Leguizamon’s sultry vocals on an arrangement of “Black Coffee” that also saw clarinettist Cisneros establishing himself as one of the band’s major instrumental voices.
Leguizamon now left the stage as Firmenich introduced an extended sequence of tango pieces beginning with “Tanguera”, a piece written by Mariano Mores. Even now the rhythms and cadences of tango remain exotic and exciting to European ears and, for me, with its echoes of the previous TJQ performance, this was the most interesting and successful part of the set. “Tanguera” included fluent solos from Cisneros, Firmenich and Angeleri, three of the SBB’s most significant instrumental presences. Overall I found that I preferred the leader’s alto playing here to his work on tenor and clarinet with TJQ.
My Spanish is practically non-existent so I didn’t get the titles of all the tango pieces. However I suspect that the next was Astor Piazzolla’s “Anos De Soledad” which began in moody fashion with the melodic lead being passed around the various reeds before Firmenich emerged as the principal soloist. The piece originally appeared on the album “Summit”, a 1974 collaboration between Piazzolla and the American jazz saxophonist Gerry Mulligan.
“City Tango” offered a fascinating blend of textured reeds with deep tenor sax “bass lines” underpinning the melodic solos of Firmenich on alto, Cisneros on clarinet and Veltri on tenor.
Leguizamon returned to add vocals to “Romance De Barrio”, her voice sounding more convincing and commanding as she she sang in her native Spanish.
The first half concluded with a piece with a Spanish title that I didn’t catch but which combined Spanish lyrics with an arrangement embracing conventional big band swing. As on the previous “Romance De Barrio” the principal instrumentalists were again Firmenich on alto and Cisneros on clarinet. The latter is also clearly a highly versatile musician, having played tenor in an earlier incarnation of the SBB.
Set two commenced with Leguizamon fronting the band and singing in English on a trio of well known jazz standards which were delivered with a swinging panache. Angeleri took the instrumental honours on “Bye Bye Blackbird” while Cisnero starred on “Georgia On My Mind”. The band swung particularly hard on “The Lady Is A Tramp” which also featured Leguizamon’s sassy scat vocals.
In a shorter second set the band now moved to the ‘tango section’ , the first piece of which featured Veltri on tenor and Cisneros on clarinet plus one of the ‘section’ tenorists.
The milonga “La Trampera” saw an off-stage Leguizamon encouraging the crowd to clap along – and being delighted with the enthusiastic audience response. There were also scintillating solos to enjoy from Angeleri on guitar and Firmenich on alto.
The vocalist then joined the band to sing in Spanish on the tango song “Nada” with the instrumental highlights coming from Veltri on tenor and Cisneros on clarinet.
The evening concluded with Leguizamon encouraging the audience to happily clap along to a piece of folk music from Northern Argentina.
A well deserved instrumental encore was ushered in by a remarkable solo from Cor on six string electric bass, his virtuosity recalling not only that of TJQ’s Federico Hilal but also that of British exponents of the instrument such as Dudley Phillips and Kevin Glasgow. He was followed by Angeleri on guitar as the players in the rhythm section gave us a welcome reminder of their considerable abilities.
Overall this a highly enjoyable evening of music with the band feeding off the energy of a very supportive crowd. The nine person reed section impressed on the unusual arrangements with Firmanich and Cisneros the outstanding soloists, with Veltri not far behind. A superb rhythm section cohered nicely and gave the music excellent impetus with Angeleri, Calderon, and finally Cor also shining when it came to soloing opportunities.
Vocally Leguizamon impressed most when singing in Spanish, where she seemed to exhibit a greater sense of involvement. And, for me, it was the tango sections that I enjoyed most, for all the jazz inflections. It’s an unfamiliar brand of music that even now still sounds exciting and strange and is one that I’m still learning about.
Interestingly the band themselves still differentiate between the two strands of their music, at least in terms of their recorded output. Their eponymous 2009 début plus its 2010 follow up “Diez Anos” feature arrangements of familiar American big band tunes. The more recent “Tango” explores their Argentinian heritage with arrangements of tunes by Piazzolla and other tango masters alongside a couple of convincing originals in the style from within the ranks of the band. It’s easily their most satisfying release.
My thanks to Patricia Leguizamon for speaking with me after the show. It seems as if Gustavo Firmenich has established a genuine rapport with Black Mountain Jazz and it’s to be hoped that he will return to Abergavenny at some point in the future with another exciting musical happening.
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