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New Jazz From a Cuban Pianist and a Former Kronos Quartet Cellist

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What does it mean for a musician to embrace his or her roots? Two recent releases by extraordinary California artists provide divergent maps back to their formative environments.

San Francisco cellist Joan Jeanrenaud spent two prolific decades with Kronos Quartet, the celebrated new music ensemble known for collaborating with an international array of composers. Her new album, “Visual Music,” reflects her ongoing creative evolution since leaving Kronos in 1999, when she started generating her own compositions.

As the title of her fourth solo project suggests, the album features pieces she originally created for theatrical settings, particularly dance performances. By employing multitracking, Jeanrenaud crafts evocative soundscapes for up to nine cellos, a sound that first caught her ear as a young teen playing group pieces with fellow cello students.

She’s joined on several tracks by percussion collaborators Dohee Lee, PC Muñoz and William Winant, who each provide incisive support. From piece to piece the mood shifts constantly, from her spirited and playful work for the Dance Theater of Harlem to the haunted, baleful tracks from a butoh-influenced production by InkBoat choreographer Shinichi Iova-Koga and AXIS Dance Company. My favorite is “This Is Not A Duet,” a sleek and propulsive duet with Winant on vibes for Cid Pearlman’s dance, “Your Body is Not a Shark.”

What makes “Visual Music” far more than a random collection of dance scores is the way that Jeanrenaud threads the album together with brief pieces composed for a Metropolitan Museum of Art sculpture exhibition, creating a graceful sense of flow. She has reconfigured and reconceived the music so it stands on its own away from the original context, which allows you to bask in her sound. Whether her music is austere and forbidding or lush and inviting, Jeanrenaud’s cello work is a thing of miraculous beauty.



While Jeanrenaud draws inspiration from her student days in creating lapidary compositions, pianist Alfredo Rodriguez gleefully reinvents a century of popular Cuban music on his new album “Tocororo.”  Although he’s only 30, the Los Angeles-based jazz musician has already been on the world stage for a decade. The fact that Quincy Jones has taken him under his wing, producing his albums and opening doors, hasn’t hurt. But Rodriguez is an awe-inspiring pianist who is extending a lineage that runs from Chucho Valdes and Frank Emilio to Gonzalo Rubalcaba and Omar Sosa.

He includes a handful of impressive original compositions, but what’s fascinating about “Tocororo” is the way that Rodriguez combines an international roster of guest artists with tunes by definitive Cuban composers such as Compay Segundo, Ernesto Lecuona, and Eliseo Grenet.

Highlights include Spanish vocalist Antonio Lizana foregrounding the flamenco influence in Lecuona’s “Gitanerias” and Ganavya Doraiswamy’s gravity-defying South Indian vocals on the title track (which takes its name from Cuba’s national bird). I especially love Rodriguez on ballads, like his arrangement of Silvio Rodriguez’s “Venga la Esperenza” featuring Lebanese-born, Paris-based trumpeter Ibrahim Maalouf.

Listening to “Tocororo,” I get the sense that Rodriguez revels in his freedom to travel and interact with musicians whenever and wherever he wants. He’s not leaving his homeland behind. With “Tocororo” he sounds eager to share its musical bounty.

On a different note, I want to offer a brief tribute to the great jazz singer Bill Henderson, a beloved figure on the L.A. scene who died last month at the age of 90. Henderson came up in Chicago performing with Ramsey Lewis, scored a jukebox hit with Horace Silver and toured with Count Basie. Moving to Los Angeles in the late 1960s he found work as an actor in Hollywood, while continuing his career as one of jazz’s greatest male vocalists. Here he is with Oscar Peterson from their classic 1963 collaboration.

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