Prezident Markon’s New Year’s Honours List 2024

By 04 January, 2024

Bonne année everyone. I trust the recent Yuletide festivities were happy, bright and gay. ‘T’is the season now to publish best of 2023 lists, so here is my contribution – with an addendum from our ‘marginal’ correspondent in Brazil, Andy Cumming. I managed to keep the list to ten one year, but it’s a testimony to the musical wealth of 2023 that I’ve had to double it this time. Pardon any apparent jazz or Brazilian bias, but here they are in no particular order:

Airto Moreira & Flora Purim: Airto & Flora – A Celebration: 60 Years – Sounds, Dreams & Other Stories (BBE Music)

A suitable 3-CD or 5-LP set to honour Brazilian jazz royalty. This splendid retrospective of the two octogenarians’ glittering careers leads from Flora’s deliciously smoky “Jeto Bom de Sofrer” from 1965 via perennial favourites like Airto’s “Toque de Cuica” and Flora’s “Open Your Eyes You Can Fly” to “Hungry On Arrival”, a belter by the grand old percussionist’s South African project, Outernational Meltdown. In a word, essential.

Gal Costa: Índia (Mr. Bongo)

To mark the 50th anniversary of this ground-breaking release, Mr. Bongo pulled out all the stops with their re-mastered reissue. President Lula no less spoke of the revered singer as ” one of our foremost artists who brought the name and sounds of Brazil to the entire planet.” The album may be 50 years old and Gal Costa didn’t live to see its reissue, but the singer and what is arguably her masterpiece were and still are a revelation.

Bebel Gilberto: João ([PIAS] Recordings)

An illustrious daughter’s tribute to her illustrious father was also something of a revelation. The poignant father/daughter photo used as its cover suggests the tenderness with which Bebel approached her filial tribute. While there are lovely, delicate versions of classics like “Desafinado” and “Você e Eu”, generally Bebel avoided the “usual suspects” and approached everything straight and discretely. Perhaps the album she was born to make, João is a triumphant and deeply touching tribute to her father’s memory and musical legacy.

Ane Díaz: Despechada (LaunchLeft)

Another lovely voice, but another country. I was much taken, as many were, by this debut from the Florida-based daughter of a Venezuelan mother, who helped her progeny choose the repertoire of folk songs she (the daughter) remembers from her childhood. The singer’s crystalline voice and the subtle arrangements that make use of electronic samples and instruments like the clarinet and cello make this delicate, variegated album one to cherish.

Lucas Santtana: O Paraíso (No Format!)

In terms of its taste and delicacy, the France-based Brazilian minstrel’s latest album is perhaps the equivalent of Despechada. It’s a sumptuously melodic affair, characterised by self-penned numbers like “No Interior de Tudo” and a gorgeous cover of “The Fool On The Hill”. Recorded in Paris with musicians such as percussionist Zé Luis Nascimento and cellist Vincent Segal, O Paraíso is a moving ecological statement and arguably Santtana’s most satisfying album yet.

Domenico Lancellotti: SRAMBA (Mais Um Disco)

Cue another Brazilian expatriate, this time based in Portugal. The product of two months’ work in this son of a samba songwriter’s Lisbon studio with collaborator and collector of Russian-designed synthesisers, Ricardo Dias Gomes, SRAMBA is quite a different amalgam of sounds. Once part of Domenico +2, who recorded for David Byrne’s Luaka Bop label, and influenced by Tom Zé and (surprisingly) ’70s avant-garde ‘Krautrockers’, Faust, the percussionist and multi-instrument cooked up a highly original marriage of roots samba and ‘modular machines’ that’s chock-full of wonderful sonic surprises.

Mito y Comadre: Guajirando (ZZK Records)

And while on an expatriate algorithm… Mito (Guillermo Lares) and Comadre (Shana) are two expatriate Venezuelans now based in Colombia. They “look for roots, belonging and pride in where we come from”, and Mito’s family background as musicologists and archivists of traditional Venezuelan music is reflected in the array of wind and percussion instruments used in support of Comadre’s vocals. But it’s the electronic beats that lend the pair’s debut album a distinctly modern and often funky feel. A duo to watch.

Bala Desejo: Sim Sim Sim (Mr.Bongo)

Another debut album that’s been winning hearts and minds is this delicious offering from a quartet of Cariocas. If this is the new sound of Rio de Janeiro, give me plenty more please. The album positively bubbles with the infectious energy that they display in their stage shows. Having already appeared at London’s Jazz Café, the word is out and their reputation is growing exponentially. Watch out, too, for singer (and daughter of famous musicians) Dora Morelenbaum’s solo work.

Gafieira Rio Miami: Bring Back Samba (independent digital release)

Another album that puts a big imbecilic grin on my face is this Miami-based supergroup’s debut. The brassy 11-piece outfit manages to conjure convincingly the spirit of gafieiras, or places where sambistas met to dance. With flavours of chorinho, pagode, and maxixe mixed in and allowed to mature, it’s a simple, no-frills recipe that’s infused with the spirit of festivity. A smoother version perhaps of the more frenetic street music heard during Carnival. As bass player and musical director Diogo Brown explains, “every dance hall and bar in the city played this music” before the party died. “My idea is to bring back the gafieira sound – with a modern sheen.” An admirable idea, I’d say.

Plena Libre: Quatro Esquinas (GN Musica)

We’ll switch to Puerto Rico and the traditional rhythms of bomba and plena courtesy of an album conceived or certainly steeped in a similar kind of infectious spirit. With one more in the band than Gafieira Rio Miami, 15 previous albums on the clock and three decades in the business, you can imagine that their 16th release is a polished but rambunctious affair. I wrote last spring that “if you want horny horns, pounding percussion and virtuoso vocals tied up in a package that will make you dance with a smile as wide as the Caribbean, look no further than this really classy album.” My favourite rug is danced threadbare and I stand by my assessment.

Various Artists: ¡Saoco! Vol. 1 (Vampisoul)

And while on the subject of bomba and plena, the admirable Vampisoul label chose last year to re-issue one of my Shelf of Fame compilations. The 30 tracks spanning the period 1954 to 1966 add up to a percussive delight and serve as an immersive lesson into the roots of Nuyorican salsa. The accompanying booklet is a musicologist’s dream, full of fascinating detail and reproductions of album covers by the likes of Cortijo and Mon Rivera. A sheer joy.

Fernando García: Behique (Self-released)

Before we sail away from the fair isle of Puerto Rico, here’s a contemporary album that still resonates with the island’s bomba heritage. Fernando García is a young Puerto-Rican drummer, composer and educator based now in New York. Behique’s signature sound derives from the way that the piano, tenor sax and/or electric guitar play in unison with Claudia Tebar’s often wordless vocal hooks – to stirring and uplifting effect. The drumming is tremendous throughout and I wrote in my Songlines review that “Latin-jazz lovers will love this.” Readers, I am one such lover.

Letieres Leite & Orkestra Rumpilezz: Moacir de Todos os Santos (Lusofonia Record Club)

Latin jazz is of course a broad church that accommodates a wealth of styles – including this prime example of deep Afro-Brazilian jazz. It’s a re-imagining of 1965’s Coisas, the debut album of one of the greats of Brazilian jazz, Moacir Santos, one of Rolling Stone’s “100 Greatest Brazilian Music Records”. Sadly, the Bahian composer, educator and multi-instrumentalist, Letieres Leite, who (re)arranged seven of the nine original coisas (or things) and founded the Orkestra Rumpilezz big band, died while the album was being mixed. His rhythmic and brassy 22-piece behemoth produces variegated music of genuine beauty as well as sheer power. Altogether, it’s a fitting legacy to a true talent who died much too young, and maybe my album of the year.

Omar Sosa & Tiganá Santana: Iroko (Ajabu! Records)

I say maybe, because this one pushes it right to the finishing tape. The meeting of the peripatetic Cuban pianist and serial collaborator with the Bahian singer-songwriter resulted in something ineffable and magical. Every note seems to resonate and the combination of piano, voice and subliminal percussion inspires contemplation. It’s a sublime, deeply spiritual album and surely Santana’s finest since his groundbreaking The Invention of Colour.

Adriana Calcanhotto: Errante (Modern Recordings/BMG)

Mind you, when talking of sheer gorgeousness, this one takes some beating, too. The 13th album by the Brazilian singer-songwriter (and author) is a sensuous and thoroughly delightful creation, with songs rich with a sense of melancholic saudade and infused with hints of choro, samba-cancão, bossa nova and other indigenous forms. The sometimes surprisingly off-kilter arrangements are top notch and Calcanhotto’s warm, engaging voice welcomes you into her world.

Valeria Matzner: Tamborilero (Self-released)

On her second solo album since migrating to Toronto, the soulful Uruguayan singer surrounded herself with an international cast, including a Jamaican bass player, a Cuban trumpet player and, above all, the Colombian and Uruguayan percussionists whose fantastic candombe rhythms give Tamborilero its distinctive USP. The album, she reveals, “pays homage to the people who started this music, the Uruguayans of African descent, and to this amazing musical gift from the people of the African diaspora to Uruguayan culture.” Valeria Matzner has done those people proud.

Roberto Fonseca: La Gran Diversión  (Wagram)

Rhythm is also the hallmark of the Cuban pianist’s latest offering, which translates tellingly as “great fun”. Big on brass and heavy on percussion, the new album confirms the pianist’s prowess in a whole plethora of styles and contexts. It also underlines just how much Fonseca loves to mambo and it’s the sheer ebullience of tracks like “Baila Mulata” here and “Mini Mambo” that helps to make this such a thrilling release. And it’s why it gets the nod over, say, Harold López-Nussa’s Timba à la Americana or Sammy Figueroa’s Searching For a Memory, which were also strong contenders for this list.

Julio Montoro y Alma Latina: Mamá África (Tumi Music)

Before leaving Cuba to bask in its Caribbean sun, let me draw your attention to this engaging “fusion of Cuban music with African music”, to use the description of label-head Mo Fini. The guitarist, composer, producer and alumnus of Félix Baloy’s Afro-Son All-Stars, Julio Montoro, wanted his third album to be more of an acoustic outing than before, and it’s his distinguished acoustic guitar playing along with Senegalese guest Amadou Diagne’s vocals and kora playing that helps pull the diverse threads of Mamá África together and make it such an enjoyable trip for listeners and dancers alike.

Naná Vasconcelos: Naná-Nelson Angelo-Novelli (Altercat Records)

Talking of acoustic guitar… Of all the obscure but fascinating reissues from South America courtesy of Berlin’s admirable Altercat label, this one takes the chocolate-chip cookie. It came out originally in 1975 on the French Saravah label under the great Brazilian percussionist’s name, but Nelson Angelo’s guitar-playing provides the principal focus – with heft provided by Novelli’s double bass and daubs of impressionist colour via Vasconcelos (who gets to stretch out on the final, eight-minute track, “Pinote”). It’s a little reminiscent of the gorgeous Visions Of Dawn, which Vasconcelos recorded the following year, in Paris, with Joyce Moreno and Mauricio Maestro. Can one say fairer than that?

LuizGa & Edgar Valente: Aiê (Ajabu! Records)

In a similar, but more contemporary vein comes this latest release from the Swedish label that brought us Tiganá Santana, Raf Vilar and more. With a raft of albums as both band member and solo artist, Luiz Gabriel Lopes (or LuizGa) here partners the multi-faceted Portuguese musician, Edgar Valente, in the group they call Aiê. Characterised by close vocal harmonies and sympathetic production, these ten intricately performed numbers add up to something of genuine promise and value.

That makes 20, which means alas that there’s no room for the likes of Titanic, Caixa Cubo, Àbájade or the estimable Rogê, but you can’t win ’em all. And while I had fully intended to include Analog Africa’s splendid compilation, Perú Selvático – Sonic Expedition into the Peruvian Amazon 1972-1986, it actually came out in the middle of December, 2022. However… here’s Andy Cumming’s supplement, culled partly from his regular “On The Margins” column.

Ricardo Dias Gomes – Muito Sol (Hive Mind Records)

One of my favourite albums of the year, a superb high wire act between subtle noise and quality Brazilian song writing. The deft touches of sound-design lift the songs beyond the level of an exercise in reverential songcraft and the element of drone underpinning the whole album comes to the surface like molten lava on “Fllux”.

Ava Rocha – Nektar (YB Music)

Continuing Rocha’s explorations into the feminine and transcendental, the arrangements, aided by Jonas Sá and Thiago Nassif, span from concrete to surreal, organic to electronic, full of delightful details, electronic pulses, a candomblé drum pattern, Amazonian percussion, not to mention lyrics that can swing from sarcasm to the romantic and the irrational.

Dadá Joãozinho – tds bem Global (Innovative Leisure) 

The title translates as “all too global”, in that you can hear the Black Ark studio in Jamaica, The Bahia of Gilberto Gil and the World of Echo of Arthur Russell. From start to finish the genre-bending dubbed-out lo-finess mixed with acoustic strumming brings to mind Manu Chao if his background were in Nação Zumbi instead of Mano Negra.

Modern cosmology & Laetitia Sadier – What will you grow now? (Duophonic)

This album is a real grower. Mombojo’s delicate guitar parts, unassuming drums and skronky keyboard sounds combined with Sadier’s Anglo and French vocals combine to make beautiful lazy day jam-like meditative pieces.

Cabezadenego, Leyblack e Mbé – MIMOSA (QTV)

A deep dive into the story of the Afro-Brazilian beat, references and genres merge as the album progresses from African drumming to futurist Afro-Brazilian manic hardcore rave, finding the direct link between the tamborzão of baile funk and Africa on the way.

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