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Ernesto Vega: Tradition and Beyond (Blackwood & Sound)

A review of the clarinetist's affectionate and uplifting tribute to roots

Ernesto Vega, Tradition and Beyond
The cover of Tradition and Beyond by Ernesto Vega

Neither as “traditional” or as “beyond” as the title might indicate, Tradition and Beyond is nonetheless an affectionate and uplifting tribute to roots, as well as to some of the mentors and role models who have inspired and helped shape the music of Cuban-born clarinetist Ernesto Vega over the course of his career.

Pianist Harold López-Nussa, bassist Gaston Jova, and drummer Ruy Adrian López-Nussa provide a dancing yet understated Afro-Cuban rhythmic base for Vega’s sprightly solo work—chirpy, playfully ebullient, yet leavened by a deep-running serenity. Despite his quick-scurrying note clusters and serpentine lines, his playing is unforced, not really “beyond” tradition (or the familiar) as much as revisiting it and infusing it with fresh color, re-enhancing the timelessness of the old by seeing (and hearing) it anew.

Thus, for instance, “Camino al Prado,” a nostalgic portrait of an idyllic Havana street, seasoned by Vega’s Parisian-tinged melodica to bring a feel of Old-World cosmopolitanism (or Old Havana aristocratic gentility) to the dance; the melancholy “Un Bolero con Sentimiento,” on which Vega, summoning the woody expanses of his instrument’s timbre, deftly avoids the upper-register shrillness to which the clarinet is prone in favor of resonance and full-toned clarity; and “Regálame un Danzón,” an elegant dance tune spiked by sharp angles and stop-time tension/release from rhythm players and soloists alike—again, a sepia-toned look back at a lost New World Spanish aristocracy.

Special note should be taken of Jova, who effortlessly interweaves Afro-Cuban rhythmic accents through his fleet pizzicato runs. His and his bandmates’ interplays are a happy meld of precision and flamboyance, further echoed by pianist López-Nussa’s deft, brilliantine explorations—intricate interweavings of hands, minds, and spirits. 

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David Whiteis

David Whiteis is a critic, journalist, and author based in Chicago. He is the recipient of the Blues Foundation’s 2001 Keeping the Blues Alive Award for Achievement in Journalism. His books include Southern Soul-Blues (U. of Illinois Press, 2013) and Chicago Blues: Portraits and Stories (U. Of Illinois Press, 2006). He is currently at work completing a book on contemporary Chicago blues and a co-written autobiography of the late soul singer Denise LaSalle.