When she was scarcely into her twenties, self-taught saxophonist Mercedes Figueras
(Self Produced, 2007) a duo recording with drummer Martin Visconte. From this initial effort, it was clear that Figueras is as fearless as she is creative. She neither tames her instrument nor lets it run wild and in the process has invented a style of her own. Her subsequent groupThe Black Butterflies
emerged in 2010 with 1 De Mayo
(Self Produced, 2010) and the collection was full of originality and promise. Most of that original septet returns as part of Figueras' octet line up on Rainbows for Ramon
, and the recording surpasses all expectations.
If there is any temptation to broadly classify The Black Butterflies as Latin jazz, the opening tracks should dispel that perception. The brief "Intro to The 3 Monkeys"complete with the appropriate nature soundsand the song itself would be at home on the Serengeti, Figueras's native Argentinean pampas, or in the New York subways where she polished her skills. Like all the pieces on Rainbows for Ramon
, there are passages that begin pragmatically but quickly edge toward unfamiliar ground. It isn't aimless wandering but more a restless desire for open spaces.
"Together" opens with a brief swing rhythm but where it goes is anything but standard. New group member Karl Berger
quickly takes the energetic lead on vibes before Figueras and fellow saxophonist Tony Larokko
layer on dense threads of free flowing improvisation. "Summertime" has been covered hundreds of times over the decades but has never sounded better. At more than ten minutes, the piece opens with concurrent Latin and blues foundations before a more insistent tempo transforms the piece into thoroughly progressive and multifaceted work. At its mid-point, pianist Levi Barcourt
injects an infectious solo that transitions the piece to a more forceful tempo. Along the way, Figueras throws in a very brief vocal and her voice is as rich and warm as her tenor sax.
The title tracka dedication to Figueras's sonseems to float in the ether though even here, that same air becomes punctuated by expectation. Berger's vibes nicely mimic "Wind Chimes," an ethereal composition and the most reflective piece on Rainbows for Ramon
. In sharp contrast, the cover of Pharoah Sanders
' "Lumkili" finds Figueras and Larokko simultaneously engaged in long melodic lines and fiercely improvised passages. The set closes with "Balafon Madness" and, like the opener in this collection, it is a highly engaging mix of nature and invention.
The Black Butterflies is a terrific group of musicians with a great deal of diversity and the synergy of a legacy band. The headline story however, is Figueras's extraordinary ability to compose lyrical and complex pieces and her expressive, searing performances. Full of emotion and brilliantly indefinable qualities, she plays around with the edges of perception and the musiciansand the music itselffollow her. Figueras's Black Butterflies have turned out one of the best jazz recordings of the year with Rainbows for Ramon
Intro to The 3 Monkeys; The 3 Monkeys; Together; Summertime; Rainbows For Ramon; Wind Chimes; Lumkili; Balafon Madness.
Mercedes Figueras: saxophone; Tony Larokko: saxophone and percussion; Nick Gianni: bass; Levi Barcourt: piano; Bopa “King” Carre: percussion; Fred Berryhill: djembe, percussion; Kenny Wollesen: drums; Karl Berger: vibes, melodic.