Jane Bunnett, soprano saxophone and flute
Maqueque, consisting of:
Danae Olano—piano and vocals
Celia Jimenez—bass and vocals
Magdelys Savigne—percussion and vocals
Elizabeth Rodriguez—violin and vocals
Guest Vocalists Melvis Santa and Dayme Arocena
Label: Linus Entertainment
Jane Bunnett, generally recognized as one of jazz’s finest soprano saxophonists and flutists, has enlightened North America to Afro-Cuban music for over 25 years. She could have hung her hat on the basis of Spirits of Havana (from 1991) alone. But two years ago she embarked on a shrewd design, the band Maqueque, consisting of all female musicians from Cuba.
Those who attended Bunnett and Maqueque’s 2015 performance at the Chicago Jazz Festival and subsequent appearances at the Jazz Showcase understand what all the hubbub is about. Piggybacking the albeit limited rapprochement of Cuba with the United States, along with a rising feminist sentiment, Bunnett and her band has gained attention it deserves, through luck and impressive talent.
Their first album, released in 2014, was a labor of love that Bunnett managed to complete after struggling with production difficulties in Cuba. The concept--a mashup of Afro-Cuban rhythms and motifs, string accompaniment, and angelic-but-sexy female choral crooning--was irresistible, winning plaudits all over North America.
Usually, such an effort is a one-time winner, as the allure of the unique wears off. However, in the case of Bunnett and Maqueque’s second album, Oddara, the opposite is true. Can it be that the second album is superior to the first? In this case, yes.
The two years of touring and relative hominess of a fine Canadian studio contribute to Maqueque’s comfort zone. This position of confidence led to a recording that allows the band to stand on its own, making Bunnett practically a guest on her own record.
The recording is also a breakout of sorts for two band members, pianist Danae Olano and percussionist/singer Magdelys Savigne.
While this production nods back to its predecessor with the rhythmic violin playing from newest member Elizabeth Rodriguez on the first track, “Little Feet,” this style tactic, lushly orchestrated on the first album, sinks into the group’s osmosis this time around. The singers are still prominent; however, the engineering and mix seems clearer here. The second piece, the danceable “Dream,” features this alluring chorus, juxtapositioned with Olano’s ubiquitous piano and Rodriguez’s tasty fills.
The jazz element of this album is heightened with “El Chivo,” a rumba where Bunnett plays both her flute and famous soprano, Olano mixes improvised licks with solid rhythmic support, and drummer Yissy Garcia and percussionist-par-excellence Savigne provide off-centered syncopation while never losing the beat. Savigne also operates as lead vocalist, heralding an impressive contribution from a great talent. Guest singer Melvis Santa joins in, as she does on three other songs.
“25 New Moves” is a smooth groove that gives the listener a proper representation of bassist Celia Jimenez, whose presence is more pronounced on stage but here provides a sturdy, funky backbone to Olano’s exquisite solo. Santa expertly elucidates the “moves.”
Both Manqueque albums feature one “American” song, sung in English, perhaps a dangling carrot to a desired radio audience. On the first record, it was “Ain’t No Sunshine.” This time it’s Leon Russell’s classic love tune, “A Song for You.” Savigne contributes a vibrant vocal, adding balladic pathos bolstered by Bunnett’s pleasant support.
After a beautiful, lilting “Power of Two” featuring Santa, her composition “La Flamenca Maria” reverses the emotional direction with a story of a vivacious woman that is signified by the band’s lusty, Africano call-and-response singing at the start. Bunnett then intervenes with a gorgeous flute before the song settles into a danzon that suggests a provocative tale. Special guest Dayme Arocena, whose exceptional contribution to the initial band led to her own recording contract, is featured on this cut, telling the story with relish, with voiced laughing and comments from various members. Clearly the group had a good time in the studio with this song. Bunnett’s contribution is a bluesy frosting on a hot cake.
On “Eulogy” and what appears to be a two-part suite, “Tres Golpes—Pa Eleggua,” the implied ethereal themes, in contrast to Western style, highlight the percussionists Garcia and Savigne, implying that sadness provides little friction within Afro-Cuban spirituality.
Another jazzier piece, featuring the deft keyboarding of Olano, occurs with Garcia’s composition, “Changui del Guaso” (rough translation: the hick’s trick/joke). As on “El Chivo,” Bunnett takes more liberties on her soprano, with the contrapuntal effect of swirling in and out of a voice, piano, and beat melange.
“Café Pilon,” a popular coffee, is Arocena’s playful object of praise in the closing number, a proper ending to a spirited collection.
One leaves this album with a keen sense of the immense talent displayed, in particular from Olano, Savigne, and Garcia, who can play with anyone. The lady chorus, a hallmark of this group, provides a signature sound that elevates tone and presence, especially in concert. Bunnett, the ringleader, is clearly riding a wave of her own making, and her playing on this record suggests a psychic freedom and buoyant attitude owned by someone who knows her legacy and relishes her accomplishments.
Special Thanks to Linus Entertainment for specific album information that added accuracy to this review.
If I had a jazz radio show: “El Chivo” and “Changui del Guaso” would get the most attention, though I would probably play “La Flaminca Maria” for fun on occasion. Any Afro-Cuban program could easily feature all of this album.