Saturday, May 14, 2016

Hector Martignon's Banda Grande - "The Big Band Theory" (Zoho ZM 201605)

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

On this ambitious third release after two GRAMMY nominated ZOHO CDs Refugee (2007) and Second Chance (2012), Colombian-born but Harlem, NY domiciled pianist Hector Martignon introduces his "Banda Grande" in daring, visionary arrangements quoting Classical composers (Bach, Mozart) over iconic Jazz and Brazilian songwriters (Bill Evans, Hermeto Pascoal) to six colorful, virtuosic Martignon originals.

The structure of Hector’s Banda Grande goes well beyond the usual, brass, reeds and rhythm: well beyond both in terms of the number of instruments that make up the traditional big band framework - in this case 5 trumpets, 5 trombones and 6 saxes [instead of the usual 4/4/5 set-up] - and well beyond in terms of instruments that are only rarely heard in conjunction with a Jazz big band such as vibraphone [Terry Gibbs, notwithstanding], accordion, Colombian harp and Colombian flute. Oh and did I mention the inclusion of a string quartet!

In the following insert notes to the CD, Hector references the use of musical colors in the arrangements that help bring big band compositions to life. What with all of the additional sonorities made available to him by the increased number of horns and the unusual instrumentation, suffice to say that what he “paints” [orchestrates] has textures that really “Pop!”

Hector’s grand band makes music that is just that - Grand. The music reflects a wide range of influences that come together to create themes that are as interesting as they are complex. Hector’s music is given additional heft and dimension by the skillful soloists who improvise on it. And not only are the soloists competent, they are creative in that they move your ears in new directions. On a number of occasions, I found myself reflecting on the “sound of surprise” that came from a soloist playing phrases, licks and lines that I had not heard before.

Hector’s band is based in New York, and given the quality of the musicianship that predominates in The Big Apple, that may account for why his music is so skillfully rendered.

But the other big reason is Hector skills as a composer-arranger and as a band leader. He is a major talent whose music will give you many hours of intellectual and emotional satisfaction. You can find out more about him and order information for his CD’s at The label website is

Here’s how he explains it in the insert notes to The Big Band Theory (Zoho ZM 201605).

Should you be insane enough to want to start a Big Band.... do it in New York! A difficult stage to climb up to and scream; cold and cruel at times but then burning hot and loving, the Big Apple gives you all you need and more... the finest musicians with great attitude, plenty of venues, great audiences, good and affordable studios. In return, you give back what you try to be best at... your music.

It was at that veteran of all venerable old Manhattan venues, the Nuyorican Poets Cafe in the Lower East Side, where my flirts with the Big Band format became a love affair, with all its challenges and intricacies. Starting off as an experimental workshop, with personnel, compositions and arrangements varying every week, some suitable for the dance needs of the crowd and some suitable for a full concert, Hector Martignon's Bandagrande slowly but surely came of age.

Any composer dreams to write for a large ensemble, be it a large choir, a Symphonic Orchestra or its Jazz version, the Big Band which offers similar resources of color and dynamics, even though smaller in numbers. With close to twenty individual instruments (and their doubles) the arranger takes over from the composer and gradually starts creating like a painter, thinking in terms of color, balances, shade, light and, well... a concept borrowed from music by the visual arts... composition.

Given such a range of possibilities, it was only natural to encompass as wide as possible a spectrum of music styles and idioms, from the Baroque sinfonia concertante, visiting the inquiring language of the sixties' and seventies' Jazz, to the Brazilian eccentricities of a Hermeto Pascoal, adding, of course, my own honest attempts at composing and arranging.

Because of budgetary and space issues we were forced to divide the recording into four sessions, each of which left (almost) untouched: 1. rhythm section plus some soloists, 2. horns, 3. strings and 4. some solo overdubs.

Before it became one more extension of a "Disneylandic" Times Square and its mass tourism, there were few neighborhoods as diverse, exciting and gastronomically enticing as Hell's Kitchen (West Side Manhattan, between 39th and 57th Streets; recently re-baptized Clinton Hills for real estate sales purposes). Hell's Kitchen Sarabande tries to re-capture the strangely alluring decay of the 90s in an atemporal albeit magically floating 3/2 Sarabande metric.

Staying within a geographic-biographic context, 99 Macdougal Street gives you a glimpse of the year I survived in the famed Village street that could be compared with New Orleans' Bourbon Street, if with less music and more smells. I wrote the tune when I was playing with Ray Barretto's New World Spirit.

Although belonging to the staple Bossa repertoire, Estate is a masterpiece by the great Bruno Martino, one of the engines behind the Italian musical Boom of the sixties.

During my studies in Germany, I used to love the "Weihnachtsmarkt", the Christmas Markets in the main squares or near most train stations, musically underscored by the Posaunenchor, small groups of 4-6 trombones playing Christmas songs and chorales, the inspiration behind Trombone Chorale. My song reminisces the hectic human rivers boarding and leaving the trains, with the incongruent Christmas music playing in the background.

Staying in the theme, Erbarme Dich is another "standard" of European sacred music, this time one of the most haunting Arias (No. 47) out of the St. Matthew Passion by J.S. Bach. I kept Bach's original string orchestration almost intact while adding the full Big Band sonority in the instrumental sections, alternating with the beautiful Alto rendition by Brenda Feliciano. The original solo violin melodic counterpoint is masterfully performed by trumpet virtuoso Joe Burgstaller with plenty of freedom and acrobatic improvisation, recorded "live" with the Rhythm section.

One of my favorite compositions by one of my favorite Jazz pianists is Interplay, an incredibly elegant though playful Blues that only a Bill Evans could compose.

Nostalgias del Future is the first movement of a "Concerto for Harp and Orchestra" I wrote for my fellow Colombian and harp virtuoso Edmar Castaneda. The main body develops in a 18/8 variation of the Venezuelan/Colombian rhythm Joropo (usually in 6/8). Besides Edmar other typical Joropo instruments like the Quatro (a small 4 stringed-guitar) are masterfully performed by Venezuelan maestro Jorge Glem, the capachos (small maracas) by my countryman Samuel Torres (right channel) and Venezuelan Roberto Quintero (left channel) who also plays the recently adopted cajon.

Maestra was the first piece I wrote and performed for this format, with the Bogota Big Band back in 2010. It gave me an extra motivation to start this project. In this rendition I added Martin Vejarano on the indigenous Gaita (a sort of flute with reeds) the maracon (a huge maraca played simultaneously by the "gaitero") and the big tambora (an improvising bass drum), to re-create a magically beautiful real-life Cumbia, far removed from the reviled commercial Cumbia of such bad reputation! The tune is dedicated to all the teachers of this world, particularly those in rural areas of third world countries.

In some of our big concerts, a Mozart string quartet opens the program, only to be gradually overpowered by a cacophony delivered by the horn section of the Big Band, marching in from all sides of the hall. Mozart Interrupted / Sorrindo reflects this situation, relinquishing the stage to a composition by Brazilian genius Hermeto Pascoal, Sorrindo (Smiling). I respectfully added a (non-existent) solo section, interluding the solos with a horn "background" made up from other Pascoal classics.

The Fruit Vendor's Last Dream is dedicated to the fruit vendor who immolated himself on January 4, 2011. He protested against the corruption and abuse of power exercised by the authorities in Tunisia, what eventually gave rise to the "Arab Spring". Whatever became of that movement in the whole region, that act of self-sacrifice will always be remembered as the triumph of dignity over arbitrariness.

John Benitez' bass solo is just unbelievable, as is his spontaneous "wow!" which I kept at the end of the piece, in this case also the end of this album. I hope you will enjoy…”

--Hector Martignon

The following video with give you a small sampling of Martignon Music in the form of his take on Interplay, “Bill Evans’... elegantly playful Blues.”

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