December 2007

Eliana Cuevas Quintet Vidas CD Release Concert
December 5, 2007 Glenn Gould Studio Toronto
The Elegant Side of Latin Jazz
by Jeremy Ledbetter with photos by Roger Humbert
Grace and elegance are two words that are not always associated with Latin jazz, where frenetic piano figures and explosive percussion solos are more characteristic. Yet those words are the first ones that come to mind to describe the Eliana Cuevas Quintet. Their unique approach to Latin jazz is subtle and rich — an approach born of the tremendous respect that each musician in the group has for the music and its heritage.
A small but enthusiastic audience braved the first truly freezing night of the year to attend Eliana Cuevas’ CD Release party on December 5 at the Glenn Gould Studio. They were treated to an impeccable performance from Cuevas and her regular band mates: pianist Luis Guerra, bassist/producer George Koller, and percussionists Daniel Stone and Luis Orbegoso. The group was also joined for this concert by a five-piece string section orchestrated by Aaron Davis.

The program consisted mostly of Cuevas’ original compositions, plus a couple of Latin American standards, running the emotional gamut from the poignantly tragic “Alfonsina y el Mar” to the jubilant “La Samba Me Llama”. Musical influences ranged far and wide as the quintet incorporated elements from Peru, Venezuela, Brazil, Cuba, Spain, and Martinique into their mosaic.

Cuevas’ second CD is entitled Vidas — plural for the Spanish “vida”, meaning “life”. The songs on the album are inspired by lives that have crossed her path — family, friends, sometimes even complete strangers. Lyrically, Eliana plays the part of a vulnerable observer — commenting on the lives of others, responding emotionally to their stories, but without offering a solution or an agenda.

“I have a great band, don’t I?” the Venezuelan singer-songwriter summed it up best during the first set. Indeed, this is a unit that has developed a fierce cohesion over the five years they have been playing together, becoming so tight they make it seem effortless.

It’s fun to watch them do it — but on this particular night I was also asked to perform as a guest pianist, having contributed a couple of arrangements to the recording. It is difficult not to feel like an intruder when you take the stage with a band that plays so well together. Cuevas worked with a variety of arrangers on Vidas, including Gordon Sheard, Luis Mario Ochoa, and band mates Luis Guerra and Daniel Stone.

The concert was being recorded for broadcast by the CBC and host Andrew Craig had the crowd at a height of exuberance by the time the musicians took the stage. For their first piece, the band launched into “Cualidad Sagrada”, an ode to those who speak their minds, featuring Stone and Orbegoso’s creative voicing of a Cuban bata rhythm.

The centerpiece of the night was, of course, Cuevas’ stunning voice. She sings with the clarity of a trumpet and the intensity of a laser beam, with occasional bursts of vibrato so tight it sounds as if she has stuck her finger into a light socket. (Don’t try that one at home, kids!)

Eliana Cuevas

George Koller
But it was the haunting side of Cuevas’ voice that took the lead on the standout song of the first set, “Otra Noche de Menos Veinte” (Another Night of Minus 20), a dark meditation on the fate of a homeless man in winter. George Koller garnered cheers for his bass solo, which saw him seemingly bend the head of his upright bass around his neck and tie it in a knot behind his back.

Each musician in this band has the potential to be a showstopper, to unleash a display of unbridled virtuosity and steal the spotlight at any moment. To their credit, they never stepped out of their supporting role, instead focusing on putting out some of the best ensemble playing around.

This is not to say that there were not moments of understated brilliance from each of the musicians on the stage. Mad scientist Luis Guerra conjured a shower of broken glass from his piano in the introduction to “Luna Llena”. At times, George Koller’s bass sang as melodically as a second vocalist. And Daniel Stone and Luis Orbegoso (both fresh off a guest appearance with Stevie Wonder at the ACC) displayed an uncanny synergy … well, just about every time they did anything at all.

Closing the first set was Gordon Sheard’s intriguing arrangement of “Garota de Ipanema”, a dreamlike 6/8 that gave the impression of being under the sea.

The Gould was a superb choice of venue, as this particular kind of Latin jazz truly does belong in a theatre. The recently re-vamped room made for much-improved acoustics (especially for percussion), and the engineers kept the band sounding gorgeous throughout.

In the second set, the band was joined onstage by the string section. The strings were a most fitting addition, wrapping a warm sonic blanket around “No Te Mortifiques” and “Inocencia” — the latter of which had me so fascinated with the strings that I almost forgot to play the piano. The cello also contributed some sonorous melodic lines on Luis Guerra’s complex arrangement of “Mercado de Vida”.

Although she graciously deflected most of the credit to the musicians around her, this was certainly Cuevas’ night to shine. Her elegant and heartfelt performance made it easy to see why many are calling her “Canada’s emerging Latin music queen”.

Jeremy Ledbetter, Luis Guerra, Eliana Cuevas, George Koller, Daniel Stone and Luis Orbegoso
The Eliana Cuevas Quintet
Eliana Cuevas – vocals
George Koller – bass
Luis Guerra – piano
Daniel Stone – percussions
Luis Orbegoso – percussions


Listen to this concert @ CBC Radio 2 – Concerts On Demand.
We welcome your comments and feedback
Jeremy Ledbetter
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Roger Humbert
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The Live Music Report
Jeremy Ledbetter is a pianist and leader of CaneFire. A band that combines Trinidadian calypso with Latin rhythms, jazz, and blues. www.canefire.ca

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