Pianist Edward Simon’s new CD isn’t exactly clichéd—there aren’t enough jazz explorations of Venezuela’s music for that—but it nonetheless provokes ennui. Venezuelan Suite, which adapts four of Simon’s country’s various folk-music traditions, uses their rhythms nicely. But the harmonies and melodies Simon and company weave around those rhythms tend to be predictable and, as such, uninspiring.
“Barinas,” for example, broadcasts obviousness from its intro: a series of alternating chromatic ascents and descents on Marco Granados’ flute. It then progresses to a timeworn Latin chord pattern and matching melodic arc. The tune’s meter shifts between 3/4 and 6/8; the rhythm section (cuatro guitarist Jorge Glem, bassist Roberto Koch, drummer Adam Cruz, percussionists Leonardo Granados and Luis Quintero) tackles it with precision, but to the listening ear it’s an insubstantial shift within a rather conventional groove. (“Merida” doesn’t even have mixed meter; it’s just a sleepy waltz whose best moment is a simple interlude from Mark Turner’s tenor saxophone.) Better is “Caracas,” with a 5/8 merengue groove that Granados and (especially) bass clarinetist John Ellis dance lightly over. Even so, the phrases Simon gives them to play shouldn’t feel so staid and conventional. And the closing arrangement of Heraclio Fernández’s “El Diablo Suelto” seems (except, again, Turner’s part) to have all the life drained from it.
Turner is not the only bright spot on the record though. Harpist Edmar Castañeda sounds distinctive everywhere he appears, with consistently fresh improvisations. (His work on “Barinas” stuns.) Simon’s plangent, yearning piano sound haunts every tune (especially “Maracaibo”), and Granados’ tremulous flute transcends the material somewhat. The ensemble, collectively, is competent and empathetic. Venezuelan Suite is banality—but of the highest order.