by Ian Mann
September 19, 2012
There's no doubting the skill and joie de vivre that has gone into the making of this highly distinctive album.
(Alex Wilson Records AWCDD1)
For the first release on his new record label pianist, composer, arranger and producer Alex Wilson presents the distinctive sound of Wilber Calver, a Cuban born musician who plays the Galician Pipes and redpipes (seemingly an electronically enhanced version). Of Cuban/Jamaican heritage Calver first heard the Galician pipes in 1997 and fell in love with the sound, subsequently living in Spain and studying the instrument under the tutelage of Professor Eduardo Lorenzo. On “Diaspora” he attempts to marry the Celtic melodies of the pipes with the rhythms of the Afro Cuban tradition. The resultant music is not entirely dissimilar to that of the popular Edinburgh based group Salsa Celtica which also fuses Celtic/Gaelic melodies with Latin rhythms but Calver’s use of the pipes gives his music a uniquely personal touch.
It’s perhaps not surprising that Wilson has taken Calver under his wing. Wilson himself is an authority on Latin music and has attempted his own fusions of musical genres on albums such as “Salsa con Soul” and “Mali Latino”. He has worked with many of the greats of World and Latin music and here arranges for and directs an ensemble that includes Paul Booth (reeds), Edwin Sanz (percussion), Leonardo Govin (trombone) and Tristan Banks (drum kit). Wilson himself plays keyboards and there are a variety of guest vocalists and bassists.
Calver has declared that it his mission to reflect the African Diaspora through the bagpipes and the music on the album encompasses jazz and reggae as well as Afro Cuban and Celtic sounds. The album kicks off with “Cork Hill”, an arrangement by Calver and Wilson of a traditional Scottish jig set to a 6/8 Afro-Caribbean rhythm. Not surprisingly it’s an orgy of melody and rhythm with the skirl of Calver’s pipes augmented by Booth and Govin’s horns and underscored by the percolating rhythms of Ganz and Banks plus the electric bass groove of Eduardo Cespedes. Paul Booth, a superb jazz saxophonist but also something of an expert on Irish traditional music thanks to a long stint with Riverdance, also features briefly as a soloist. Wilson’s piano is the glue which holds it all together. An invigorating start.
The pace hardly slackens with Calver and Wilson’s arrangement of “Jota Pardela”, a Galician tune by Miguel A. de Pardela given an Afro Cuban twist with the addition of the voices of guest singer Virginia Quesada and backing vocalist Cespedes (who again features on bass). Calver promises “warmth and unadulterated joy” embodying the “spirit of Cuba” and that’s pretty much what you get, with a substantial Galician twist.
“El Cumbanchero” embraces Calver’s Jamaican heritage. The melody of Rafael Canchola Hernandez’s tune was appropriated by the Skatalites for “Rock Fort Rock” so maybe it’s no wonder it sounded so familiar when it first drifted through my speakers. After a moody opening with Calver’s pipes approximating the drone of a pipe organ the piece suddenly bursts into life as the rhythm players strike up an irresistible reggae groove with Govin delivering a swaggering trombone solo in the style of Rico Rodrigues. Booth shadows him and Wilson’s keyboards are again at the heart of the joint arrangement with the pianist later enjoying an exuberant solo.
Wilson and Calver’s arrangement of the traditional Cuban tune “Eicho De Dar” is done in the style of the “danzon”, the national dance of Cuba. Calver describes the arrangement as “elegant and graceful” and his pipes place the emphasis on melody with Booth’s Irish whistle adding greatly to the beauty of the piece. Govin’s trombone adds depth and the percussion parts are consistently fascinating. The overall effect is charming and lovely.
“Clumsy Lover” is another excursion into the world of the jig, this time of the Irish variety, with Wilson and Calver merging the traditional tune with a Cuban charanga to good effect. The results are as infectious as one might imagine.
“Muineira Nova” represents a merging of Galician muineira rhythm with the Cuban 6/8 rhythm and filters them through a jazz prism which shows off Wilson’s keyboard skills alongside Calver’s pipes. Known as “El gaitero de ebano” (or “The Ebony Bagpiper”) there’s no doubt that Calver has become a virtuoso on his chosen instrument and it’s no wonder that the power of his live performances has turned audience’s heads, notably at an appearance at the 2010 Aldeburgh Festival.
For “Foliada De Berducido” Wilson and Calver find their way to Louisiana for an arrangement of a New Orleans funeral tune, a typically “strange combination of melancholy and joy”. The familiar structure of the New Orleans funeral procession is given the Wilson/Calver treatment with Booth and Gorvin contributing strong solos to the “second line” section alongside Wilson’s sparkling piano and the distinctive sound of Calver’s pipes.
“Rumba De San Roque” is arguably the focal point of the album with Calver playing the stirring melody of the Galician tune “Pasodobre de San Roque” on the pipes, initially with just Wilson’s piano and Banks’ shimmering cymbals for company. It sounds quintessentially Celtic but the introduction of Sanz’s rumba rhythms and the voices of lead singer Davide Giovanni and backing vocalist Deny Guarner relocate the tune across the Atlantic. The piece emphasises the similarities of the religious traditions of Galicia and the Yoruba traditions of Cuba. The feasts of San Roque in Galicia and San Lazaro in Cuba are both held in December and the teachings and iconography of the two saints are closely linked.
The album closes with the well known hymn “Amazing Grace”, written by one John Newton whose religious conversion saw him make the transformation from slave trader to anti-slave campaigner. The famous melody is first stated by Calver on the pipes, the sound is rousing and distinctly Scottish in flavour. Later the rhythms of the bata drum are added, played here by Dave Pattman. Bata rhythms are deeply rooted in the Yoruba religion and their use here is an vital reminder of Calver’s Cuban heritage. Wilson’s keyboards, Cespedes’ electric bass and the horns of Booth and Govin are also prominent in the arrangement. The piece is perhaps over familiar but Wilson and Calver keep it just the right side of saccharine and help to cast it in a new light.
Calver is an extraordinary figure and in many ways “Diaspora” is an extraordinary record. It fits neatly into Wilson’s ongoing campaign to mix and match musical genres and cultures but it’s Calver’s playing that makes it pretty much unique. Like Salsa Celtica’s music the fusing of seemingly disparate elements actually works and the arrangements by Wilson and Calver of the mainly traditional material are imaginative and consistently interesting. The playing from a highly accomplished team is consistently excellent with Calvert’s pipes dominating subtly throughout. Wilson, although it’s nearly as much his album too, is largely content to be part of the ensemble but is always there, a vital presence in the music.
“Diaspora” is not exactly a jazz record (or a folk record or a Latin record for that matter) and some may find the overall concept a little contrived but there’s no doubting the skill and joie de vivre that has gone into the making of this highly distinctive album. I’d guess that this music would make for a brilliant and often spectacular live show too.