Getting it live

By JON GARELICK  |  September 23, 2008

At Ryles a week ago Wednesday, the quiet but forceful linchpin of another scene — another “subculture” — held court. This was five-string electric-bassist Fernando Huergo, who plays in more pan-American bands (as in Spanish and Portuguese) than I can count — singer-songwriter Marta Gómez’s band, Sergio Brandão’s Manga-Rosa, the Afro-Cuban band Enclave, and Guillermo Klein’s Los Guachos big band, to name a few. But it is Huergo’s own “jazz Argentino” that is closest to his heart, a blend of jazz harmonies and improvisation with Argentine milonga, tango, and chacarera. At Ryles, he was joined by the band from his latest album on Sunnyside, Provinciana: flutist Yulia Musayelyan, saxophonist Andrew Rathbun, pianist Mika Pohjola, and drummer Franco Pinna.

Although Huergo’s tunes are based on dance rhythms, you probably couldn’t dance to them, not even if you’re from Argentina. “Instinto Matero” mixes alternating sections of Argentine chamamé with funk, “One in Ten” bumps along on a 10/8 chacarera, and the title track from the new album, introduced by Huergo’s power-chord fifths, fakes left with 6/8 malambo before falling into 4/4.

Those formal schemes don’t begin to suggest how catchy Huergo’s melodies can be, and the irresistible tug of his grooves, no matter how ambiguous the meter. He knows how to keep you dancing in your seat. At Ryles, you could also hear why he’s such an in-demand bassist. The first tune of the night, his “Chacarera Boogaloo,” honored the classic Blue Note boogaloos of Herbie Hancock and Lee Morgan. As Pohjola solo’d, Huergo’s bass danced in tandem, outlining the beat with Penna, but also spinning off countermelodies, coloring chords with bass-baritone low notes and guitar-tenor highs.

Rhythm as much as anything else (melodic variation, chord progressions) accounts for the tension and release in Huergo’s songs. But Penna’s “Bochis” (from both the album and the band’s second set at Ryles) is apposite, mixing passages of exaggerated syncopation with a smooth, legato triple meter. Meanwhile, Huergo’s bandmates have grown into this music wonderfully. Musayelyan is a flutist with beautiful tone who’s nonetheless not so in love with her own sound that she doesn’t shape her lines with rhythmic incisiveness. Rathbun’s soprano solos are full of attractive Wayne Shorter–like hesitations and rests. And on “El Chupacabras,” he got to break out of the chacarera rhythm for a torrid passage of 4/4 swing, Huergo running right along with him. Sometimes straight swing is a good thing too.

For their 36th annual event on September 27, the John Coltrane Memorial Concert folks are taking a different direction. For one, they’ve invited rapper Guru and his Jazzmatazz crew. For another, the JCMC Ensemble — featuring the best of the local scene playing arrangements of classic Trane — will not appear. So what’s up?

Saxophonist and Northeastern professor of African-American studies Leonard Brown, who’s been with the event since its beginning, says that this year’s concert is entirely in keeping with the event’s purposes: “innovation and exploration and education.” Brown, who tends to speak in the ardent run-on cadences of a preaching Coltrane solo, sees hip-hop as part of the same continuum — “coming out of black and Latino communities in the United States, and being a political statement as well as a statement about creativity and artistry and paralleling similar types of moves in African-American culture that go all the way back to the blues and even predate the blues, going back to the role of black music during enslavement. So rap, to me, maintains that tradition, which got commercialized and spun off into all kinds of bullshit, right?”

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