Celebrando-- Hendrik Meurkens & Gabriel Espinosa

For Zoho Music's 100th recording, the world music label brought together two of its artists for a celebration of Brazilian jazz. Joining Meurkens on harmonica and Espinosa on bass and vocals are Anat Cohen on clarinet and tenor (four tracks), Jim Seeley on trumpet and flugelhorn, Misha Tsiganov on piano and Fender Rhodes, Antonio Sanchez on drums, Mauricio Zottarelli on drums and percussion, and last but not least, Alison Wedding on vocals and Molly Blythe on background vocals. Meurkens left his vibraphone at home this time, a wise decision since the arrangements mostly emphasize the harmonies developed by wordless vocalizing in tandem with the instrumentalists, and vibes would not have worked as effectively. One thinks in this regard of the many successful encounters Toots Thielemans had with singers over the years. Wedding was previously heard extensively on Espinosa's From Yucatan to Rio CD.

The opening 'La Esperanza", a bossa nova, finds Meurkens' harmonica, Tsiganov's electric piano, and Wedding's voice combining to present Espinosa's enticing theme. Wedding has a short improv before Tsiganov's pliant solo. Wedding then scats her way assuredly once again, followed by Meurkens melodic solo and a welcome reprise. Meurkens' reflective "Slow Breeze" is inspired by guitarist Toninho Horta. Harmonica and Wedding's voice blend seamlessly and ingratiatingly. The singer then comps for Meurkens' brilliant solo. Tsiganov has a neat, concise piano spot, and then Jim Seeley's rich flugelhorn appears for the theme's recap. "Frenzelosa (Choro No. 2)" presents its composer Meurkens and Anat Cohen on clarinet in delightful, dancing rapport. Their weaving lines and individual solos are zestful and irresistible, especially when the tempo heats up at the conclusion. Meurkens describes Cohen as "a master Choro player," but he's certainly one as well.

Meurkens' swaying, soothing "Odessa in April" is delineated by harmonica and voice, with interjections by Seeley's flugelhorn. Seeley and Meurkens flowing, lyrical solos are enhanced by Wedding during this outstanding Meurkens arrangement. "Pa Rio" is Espinosa's ode to Rio de Janeiro. Cohen's glowing theme reading and clarinet solo, and the sonorous contributions of the vocal trio of Espinosa, Wedding, and Molly Blythe, highlight this piece, as does Meurkens' lively improv near its end. Tsiganov's "Out of Reach" utilizes harmonica, Cohen's tenor, and the voices of Wedding and Espinosa. Cohen's pulsating solo is succeeded by Meurkens' slow burning offerings. Vocal acrobatics and rhythmic intricacy combine in the compelling final section.

"La Puerta" is a bolero by Yucatan composer Luis Demetrio, and is sung with genuine feeling in Spanish by the honey-toned Espinosa. Meurkens provides an understated, sensitive solo to complement him. Tsiganov's driving up-tempo samba, "She Lives in Brazil," is jointly handled by Wedding and the pianist, with the composer and then Seeley on muted trumpet romping engagingly prior to the delectable vocal/piano reprise, which is intensified harmonically (no pun intended) by the addition of Meurkens' unfettered harp on top. Espinosa's arousing "Maya Roots," in 6/8 time, is articulated by Meurkens and Cohen's clarinet, with Tsiganov's precise accompaniment. Wedding's wordless voice enriches the track for its duration. Brief piano and harmonica solos take second stage to the glorious group dynamic.

Meurkens' buoyant "Mountain Drive" theme is played by him after Seeley's warm intro. Wedding joins Meurkens for the second go-around, which leads to animated harmonica and flugelhorn ventures. Wedding offers heartwarming background support during these solos and continues on with the composer in revisiting the theme. The title track, "Celebrando," is a partido alto/samba tune by Espinosa to honor 2012 as the "year of the Mayas." Meurkens, Seeley's flugelhorn, and the vocals of Espinosa, Wedding, and Blythe share the ebullient melody. Zottarelli's drums and percussion are particularly noteworthy on this short but sweet selection. He (six tracks) and Antonio Sanchez (five) split time very capably on this highly pleasurable recording session.

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Scott Albin