Monday, March 23, 2015

Victor Feldman and The Venezuelan Joropo

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Cross-cultural influences have always been a part of the Jazz experience from the music earliest beginnings in New Orleans at the turn of the 20th century when French, English, Spanish, Creole, African, and Native American Indian elements all contributed to the music’s unique sound and rhythmic feeling.

Rhythmic feeling has often been responsible for some of the greatest changes in the sound of the music as it evolved from ragtime to Dixieland to Swing to Bebop to Hard Bop to the freer forms of the music associated with unusual or time signatures which began to manifest in the late 1950’s and early 1960.

Since then, Afro-Cuban clave-based rhythms from Cuba, Samba and Bossa Nova beats from Brazil, Indian ragas, Japanese theatrical music from Noh and Kabuki plays, Middle Eastern, Central European and Turkish dance rhythms that place accents at different intervals - all these and many more rhythmic influences have found their way into the Jazz idiom as the music became more universal and more cosmopolitan in the second half of the 20th century.

Not all of these cross-cultural adaptations have resulted in lasting influences on Jazz, but some of them are fun to explore as isolated instances of what the music sounds like in different environments.

One of my favorites recordings of such vanished experiments is Victor Feldman’s 1967 The Venezuela Joropo LP[Liberty Pacific Jazz PJ-20128]

Listening to The Venezuela Joropo, brings to mind  Philip Elwood’s assessment that “… Victor’s knowledge of rhythms and meters, and the possibilities inherent in combining melodic lines with percussion expressions, greatly expounds the sounds of any group within which he works.”  

Only someone with Victor’s bent-of-mind could even conceive of taking music such as this into a Jazz setting.

To digress from a moment, Latinsville [Contemporary CCD-9005-2], an album done much earlier in his career [1958-59], was Victor’s first, major recorded statement of his affinity for various Latin jazz styles. And while it served as a precursor to The Venezuela Joropo it can also be considered a direct link to it from the standpoint of Victor’s lifelong fascination with different rhythms and his uncanny ability to place them successfully in a Jazz context.

Another influence that helped spawn the original 1958-59 recording project was the great admiration that Victor had for Cal Tjader, both as a vibist and as a fellow drummer, and the Latin Jazz music Cal was then performing with his quintet.

Pianist Vince Guaraldi was a member of Cal’s group at that time and he and Victor were great friends from their stint together on the Woody Herman band [Vince even replaced Victor with the Lighthouse All-Stars for a time before returning to his native San Francisco in 1960]. Vince and Victor had many conversations about Latin Jazz, often demonstrating certain figures or phrases while playing “montuno” 5-note rhythmic patterns using claves [two small wooden rods about 8 inches long and 1 inch in diameter; they are typically made of rosewood, ebony or genadillo].

The seeds for what became The Venezuela Joropo [Liberty Pacific Jazz PJ-20128] must have been “germinating” in Victor’s mind for quite some time as he talked about his interest in this music during his 1965 interview with Les Tomkins:

“I've heard some music from Venezuela that I have some tapes of at home. Everything's in 6/4. There's a harp player, a maracas player, a guitar-or, actually, it's a quarto-and a gultarone on there, playing the bass notes. And it's the first time I've heard a harp player really swing. I've heard people try to play the harp in jazz, but it's syncopation, rather than swing. This guy's fantastic. There's a few of 'em in Venezuela. I can't recall his name; it's on the tip of my tongue.

The maracas player is also a marvelous musician. He makes fill-ins at the right time into the bridges, he can make trills on the maracas-all kinds of amazing things. And the sound these guys get with what they do! It really swings. I'm going to try and incorporate it into something I do on a record, and let it be sort of an influence. The harmonic structure's so simple. There's 7th chords and major chords - but it's a matter of knowing how to improvise on that. Because when you've improvised on the chord structures that I commonly use - this is entirely different. So I'm working on it.”

With Marty Paich [with whom Victor studied arranging] contributing an arrangement of one of the tracks, there is some very beautiful music on The Venezuela Joropo and it is regrettable that it has never made it to CD.

On it, Victor, who plays vibes and/or marimba on all tracks, uses two bands: [1] Emil Richards [vibes/marimba], Bill Perkins [flute/alto flute], Dorothy Remson [harp], Al Hendrickson [guitar], Max Bennett [bass], Larry Bunker [timbales], and Milt Holland [maracas and percussion]; [2] Bill Perkins [flute/alto flute], Dennis Budimir [acoustic and electric guitars], Monty Budwig [bass] and Colin Bailey [drums].

Dr. Robert Garfias, then of the Archives of Ethnic Music and Dance of the University of Washington, Seattle, WA wrote the liner notes for the album. They tell a fascinating story of the serendipitous way in which the album came about and, since the album has never been issued in CD form, they are re-printed here in their entirety.

“Perhaps a little more than a year ago I received a phone call from Victor Feldman. He had by chance happened to hear in Los Angeles one of my radio programs dealing with the traditional and folk music of Venezuela and was anxious to hear more of this music, and to know something about it.  In this way a rather sporadic exchange of tapes, letters and phone calls was begun which at last resulted in the exciting music included on this LP.

Before this, Victor Feldman was known to me only as the very sensitive pianist who had played for a time with Miles Davis. I was honestly surprised at the thought that a musician in the mainstream of jazz today might be attracted by the music of Venezuela as a possible vehicle for his own expression.

Certainly there have been incursions of Latin-American music into jazz and popular music in the United States. The several waves of Cuban music and most recently the Sambas, Maracatus and Baiaos of Bossa Nova have each had strong and lasting effects.

But the music of Venezuela is somehow rather special. Being primarily an outgrowth of the old popular music of the Spanish Colonial period in Venezuela with little Afro-American influence, this music has not lent itself to the fervor or flashy intensity of the music of Cuba or Brazil.

There is certainly a high degree of rhythmic intensity in the music of Venezuela but its usual rhythms occur In groups of six beats with the characteristic groupings and alterations of 3-3 with 2-2-2, which link this music with other remnants of Spanish Colonial music, the Mariachi of Southwestern Mexico, the harp music of Vera Cruz, the popular songs and dances of Yucatan, Colombia, Peru, and Chile.

The typical Venezuelan ensemble of Spanish harp, cuatro (a small four-string guitar) and maracas, does not at first glance appear to lend itself to easy assimilation with jazz. It is a real tribute to the imagination and good taste of Victor Feldman that this first attempt should be musically such a success. He has given a beautiful sampling of his talents on this LP.

There are a few examples of resetting of traditional Venezuelan songs. The others are a mixture of standards from the jazzman's repertoire and original compositions showing varying degrees of Venezuelan influence. The result is not only a fascinating document of the meeting of two traditions but the entire LP as a unit is an excellent example of ‘musique a faire plaisir,’ music to give pleasure.

Although on first hearing the music recorded here goes smoothly and effortlessly by, careful listening reveals a wealth of musical subtleties and refinements. One of the highlights of the LP is an original by Victor Feldman, ‘Summer Island.’ The composition follows the now standard formal structure A A B A, but the orthodoxy ends there. While it is becoming increasingly common to hear jazz musicians play in asymmetrical rhythmic patterns and meters, this beautiful and light tune dances easily through some truly amazing changes. The four phases of the A section are in 11 beats (5 plus 6), 11 beats, ten beats (5 plus 5) and 11 beats which are repeated before coming to the B section which is set in a regular six beat meter. This is in turn followed by another statement of the A section. The rhythmic structure does not conveniently become regular to accommodate the solos, and Victor's vibes solo especially highlights the logic of this otherwise unconventional meter. One has only to listen to the beautiful ease of this evocative tune to realize that this is no mere exercise in esoterica.

Another adventure in irregular rhythms is the Marty Paich original ‘Caracas Nights.’ The piece is solidly set in a meter of five beats (3 plus 2), which is relieved only by a short section in six beats towards the end of the second section. A quiet kind of insistence is built up in the piece through the use of a repeated drone in the bass part which changes to a new tonality in the second section. Tight, sure and neatly structured solos by Victor and Dennis Budimir add another level of definition to the performance and are further highlighted by yet another change of tonality in the supporting bass part. Bill Perkins' solo bursts in at the section in six beats and brings with it the faint suggestions of the return to the composed melody and the close of the piece.

The third original composition on the record is another from the distinguished Victor Feldman pen. This one is entitled simply ‘Pavane,’ and although it bears little formal resemblance to the Renaissance or Baroque forms of the ancient dance of the peacock , it does suggest much of the graceful ease of the original. Set in an easy meter of six beats, ‘Pavane’ is perhaps structurally the simplest piece of the group and yet, for me, the most haunting and the one which remains longest in the memory, reappearing unexpectedly long after I have put the record away.  Bill Perkins' flute sings through the first statement of the melody, but even afterwards the same melody seems to be quietly winding its way on through Victor's and then Bill's improvised solos. Dennis Budimir's guitar solo then leads to the unobtrusive return of the melody that seems never to have ceased at all.

The two standards in the group, ‘Frenesi’ and ‘The Shadow of Your Smile,’ each receive very different treatment. ‘Frenesi’ is marvelously transformed by removing it from its traditional Cuban Bolero rhythm of four beats to a Venezuelan flavored rhythm of six. One wonders if other well-worked Latin standards could appear so revitalized in a new setting. The transformation for ‘The Shadow of Your Smile’ is, at first hearing, less pronounced. However, the sure and steady bass line of Monty Budwig makes thorough use of the many possible permutations offered by the Venezuelan rhythm of six, albeit at something slower than the standard Venezuelan tempo. Over the quiet pulsations of the rhythm this now well-known melody moves steadily along without changing any of its essential character.

The four remaining pieces on this LP have the strongest Venezuelan flavor. ‘Obsession Waltz,’ a popular Venezuelan waltz, is set here in a slow yet undulating tempo of a romantic ballad rather than a tight cross-rhythmic six of the usual Venezuelan waltz. Although this popular song is not known widely outside of Venezuela, in this setting it seems difficult to believe that its origins are any different from those of ‘The Shadow of Your Smile.’ The melody is given rather straightforward treatment throughout, opening with an alto flute solo, followed by vibes and guitar solos - Victor's vibes solo being the only one to dramatically depart from the original melody.

‘Por El Camino Real’ and ‘El Gavilan’ are traditional Venezuelan dance tunes of the ‘Pasale’ and ‘Joropo’ type. ‘Por El Camino Real’ is an original composition by the famous Venezuelan harpist, Juan Vicente Torrealba. It follows the traditional rhythmic and melodic pattern of many Venezuelan songs. Its first section is in a minor key. The startling element in the tune occurs in the second section which in each statement begins with a measure of eight beats, in an otherwise strictly six beat meter. The change is quite refreshing and I suspect that it was exactly this that caught Victor’s imagination.

The piece opens with a statement of the melody on the vibes and bass done in the style of a semi-free introduction.  This soon leads to a soft-spoken version the Venezuelan ‘Pasaje’ rhythm supporting the rest of the performance. ‘El Gavilan’ is an old traditional ‘Joropo,’ the composer of which is no longer even known. The text to this song is one of those deceptively simple Spanish folk songs that may be filled with surprising double meanings, which may have been considered the height of spiciness a century ago. This song is given the most authentically Venezuelan treatment of any of the selections on the LP. The little ensemble of instruments that Victor has put together for this performance  gives an excellent idea of the fire and bite of a good Venezuelan trio.

Certainly the most amazing piece on the entire record is Victor Feldman's composition ‘Pasion.’ Although it is an original composition by Feldman it captures as much of the true flavor of Venezuelan music as can be heard in ‘El Gavilan.’ The performance retains the tight synchronized rhythmic quality of Venezuelan music throughout, but it is the natural ease and the strong Venezuelan flavor of the tune itself which make it practically impossible to distinguish from traditional Venezuelan music.

Whether or not Venezuelan music henceforth exerts a great wave of influence jazz does not detract in any way from the success and delightfulness of the musical experiments contained in this record.”

Obviously, Venezuelan music did not exert a great influence on Jazz, but it’s interesting to look back on this surviving example of Victor’s Venezuelan Venture [sorry, I couldn’t resist].

The following video features Marty Paich’s Caracas Nights track from Victor’s Venezuela Joropo.

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