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Oscar Hernández & Alma Libre: Visión (Ovation)

A review of the pianist/arrangers third recording with the quartet

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Oscar Hernández & Alma Libre: Visión
The cover of Visión by Oscar Hernández & Alma Libre

Oscar Hernández, longtime pianist, arranger, and musical director for Rubén Blades’ orchestra and founder/musical director of the Grammy-winning Spanish Harlem Orchestra, wears his prestige lightly. This is his third recording since 2017 with the quartet Alma Libre (augmented here, at various points, by trumpeter Aaron Janik, vibist Joe Locke, and hand-percussionist Luisito Quintero), and under his low-key but authoritative leadership they meld with an effortlessness that might shame ensembles with much more extensive track records.

The opening title track sets the tone: celebratory but unforced, infused with ebullience by percussionists Jimmy Branly (traps) and Christian Moraga (congas), along with Quintero on timbales. Saxophonist Justo Almario is probably the most adventurous soloist; he dances jubilantly, circling, slurring, and eliding his way over, under, and through the songs’ melodic frameworks and passageways. When he switches to flute (“Doña Provi,” “Tributo al Son,” “So Believe It”), he summons a tone that’s fulsome and brilliantine, yet softened by his tender melodicism. On six of this disc’s 10 tracks, trumpeter Janik rises to Almario’s challenge, unfurling bold, clarion-toned solos. Bassist Oskar Cartaya, meanwhile, is nimble-fingered and quick-minded, never sacrificing depth of tone or accuracy of pitch to his daunting speed and dexterity. Hernández, for his part, exudes a magisterial elegance even as he spikes his playing with exploratory brio.

Throughout, the distinction between instruments’ “melodic” and “rhythmic” roles is blurred: the entire orchestra functions as a drum with its crisply articulated phrasing and deep-pocket comping, even as the drums and other percussion instruments create fresh tonal and melodic textures. Nonetheless, by today’s standards, this is a pretty “inside” set—few, if any, new trails are blazed. But that shouldn’t serve as a deterrent: Hernández and his aptly named compatriots deliver a bracing serving of new wine decanted from well-aged bottles.

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.